LAST FLAG FLYING
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriter: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan, Darryl Ponicsan
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/23/17
Opens: November 3, 2017
With our current President”s making a badge of honor about lying—one source states that since he took office he made 1,200 statements with at least partial untruths—“Last Flag Flying” serves as a criticism of the lies that administrations make that lead us into unnecessary wars. The sad part is that the U.S. has been fighting countries that have not attacked us and which cost so many lives that Presidents seem unwilling to pull out lest they admit that the soldiers died in vain. (This is obviously false when talking about the Vietnam War, since the Americans fled in helicopters almost when the Viet Cong were rumbling into Saigon.)
Richard Linklater is known to cinephiles for his look at generational rites as in “Suburbia,” wherein teens support each other in their advance to adulthood. “Last Flag Flying” is no exception as the director and co-writer assemble an ensemble of three people with only their Vietnam experience in common—and that appears more than enough. Never mind that one buddy, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) is a raging extrovert, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) a decent and quiet fellow, and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) a bridge between the two, one who in reverend garb can barely tolerate cussin’ but who opens up during this road movie.
The action takes place in New Hampshire, Boston, and Virginia in 2003 as “Doc” stops at a bar run by perpetual inebriate Sal—who proves at least that he likes the product he sells. Though difficult to recall him by looks after thirty years, Sal is over the moon at running into his Marine buddy, though he soon learns that his friend with the suppressed emotions is on his way to fetch his son for burial. The twenty-one year old died allegedly in an ambush that saw him opening up his weapon like a hero, but the first major lie of the day is planted as the threesome discover the real story. They head to an African-American church led by their pastor friend, get invited to his home where the pastor admonishes Sal to watch his language. But when the three take off to meet up with Doc’s son’s casket, he opens up almost as much as when he was on active duty in the ‘nam.
Much of the story is somber, and indeed a melancholy mood clouds the action, though there is a single, laugh-out-loud hilarious scene when the three recall Vietnamese bordellos surround the American base, and penis jokes abound, particularly about Sal’s phallus that was so rock hard in the whorehouse that he could scarcely move the rest of his body. Alas, now that Sal has a metal plate in his head, the hustling action is a thing of the past.
In a critical blow against the Marines, an action that surpasses in audacity the kneeling this year of some football players during the National Anthem, “Doc” demands that the Corps not bury the body in Arlington, as he has learned the truth about the killing, but insists on driving it in a U-Haul van to his New Hampshire digs to be buried next to the young man’s mother.
The picture has a solid, credible mixture of comedy and drama, melancholy and hilarity, as you might expect from three of the best actors in the business, particularly from Bryan Cranston who is arguably the best movie actor of his generation.
Rated R. 124 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B