Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a finely acted, elderly Last Detail-type road trip in search of the American military dream.
Old Gloryby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
History repeats itself in Richard Linklater’s comedy drama Last Flag Flying as America’s military involvement in Iraq reopens the still-livid scars of the Vietnam war deep in its veterans. The action takes place in 2003, in that emotive period leading up to Christmas, as news footage of Saddam Hussein’s capture is shown on televisions across the US.
Three old Marine Corps buddies who had lost touch with each other reunite decades after serving together in ‘Nam to attend the burial with full military honours of the son of one of them, also a Marine, who has been killed in action in Baghdad. The instigator of the reunion is Doc (a meek, moustached Steve Carell), grieving from the loss of his wife, and now his son, Larry Jr. He tracks down old comrade Sal, now a borderline alcoholic bar owner (Bryan Cranston, Oscar-worthily anarchic in what would have been the Jack Nicholson role if this was The Last Detail). And together they turn up in the church of the third man of the trio, now a respected, sober pastor, the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who when in the Marines was their hellraising buddy Mule. Though he’s unwilling to revisit the past with them, he’s persuaded by his wife (Deanna Reed-Foster) that he should go along too to protect Doc from Sal’s influence. And after all those years apart, their previous friendship and comradeship inexorably reasserts itself.
Attending the military funeral was the intention, but as some uncomfortable truths are forced out into the open as Sal confronts the military establishment, their road trip unexpectedly does an about turn and they hijack Larry Jr’s coffin so that he can be buried privately at home. Their odyssey is the trigger for a re-examination of patriotism, their attitudes to it as Marines and how they have changed. Because the authorities oppose the change of plan, the Marines Colonel (Yul Vasquez) delegates a minder to accompany them until the coffin reaches its final resting place – Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a young Marine who was Larry’s best friend. As they get to know each other during the several days of the journey, his views contrast with theirs.
It’s a spell-binding display of wonderful acting with what looks like occasional skilled improvisation – from rambunctious Cranston, on-his-dignity Fishburne, to the quiet centre Carell, playing against type. Johnson is the young embodiment of tradition carrying on. The two generations, no matter how much they may rail against it, share a respect for what they see as their duty to their country and for the Stars and Stripes itself. The film ultimately develops in a very moving way, yet given all the anger, debate and disillusion that has gone before it, what could have a searing comment on the lies and futility of military action in far-flung countries rolls over and becomes a sentimental cop-out. But it’s a fantastic ride across America on the way, whether it be by car, hydraulic loader or train.
Last Flag Flying screens in the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 8, 9 and 10 October 2017.