Last Flag Flying
Last Flag Flying screens at the AMC River East 21 on Monday, October 16 at at 8:15PM. For additional ticketing information, refer to the Chicago International Film Festival website here.
Cast beside the shaggy shadow of Hal Ashby’s imperfect 1973 film The Last Detail, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying seems dwarfed and lost. The film functions as one of Linklater’s quote unquote spiritual successors, to which the writer/director has described as an echo. That echo finds three Marine officers reunited after decades apart, serving their friend in his moment of despair. It’s December 2003 and Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) walks into Sal Nealson’s (Bryan Cranston) dive bar. It’s been decades since they last saw each other as the two catch up over a night of beer and pizza. The following morning Doc coerces Sal to drive him to a nearby church where they find Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). The gang is back together, though this time their mission lends itself to something more somber. Doc’s intentions are made clear during a meal with his the Mueller and Sal: his son was killed in the Iraq War and is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Recently widowed and essentially alone, Doc looks to his former Marine companions for aid in his time of need. Reticent as they may be, Sal and Mueller agree to accompany Doc, as Doc first must identify the body of his son before his impending burial.
Last Flag Flying possesses the sort of Linklater-isms on the transitory nature of life and death that one would expect. But I was also reminded of the late Albert Maysles’ recent documentary about Amtrak’s Empire Builder, In Transit, in that Last Flag Flying finds its characters eventually cavorting on a train transporting the body of Doc’s deceased son. Last Flag Flying imparts its wisdom through its sense of movement, where the act of moving on requires these three men to take solace in one another’s company. As a character says early in the film: “we were all something once, now we’re something else”, which more or less outlines the character desires to leave behind their agony to shape a future without it. The most compelling moments of Last Flag Flying tend to comment on the cyclical nature of the men’s journey, which parallels the Vietnam War with the Iraq War, in what registers as a sort of ideological indictment on what it means to be unhappily aware or blissfully nescient.
But these thematic elements are realized through the vessels of absurdly theatrical performances, none more agitating than Bryan Cranston’s aggressive Jack Nicholson imitation. Fishburne fairs slightly better, if only because his performance is modulated to something less histrionic. Carell’s style most directly emulates Ashby’s film, in what’s more naturalistic and reserved. The manner in which these three styles intersect rarely blended into anything especially fruitful, which causes the film to suffer without Carell’s presence. Juxtaposed with a series of vapid vacillations, including bewilderment with cell phone technology and the realization that Eminem is indeed a white man, the film’s dad-humor can prove to be an especially alienating and befuddling quality. Perhaps it’s the expectation that Last Flag Flying would prove to be more of a stylistic companion to The Last Detail or that Linklater would corral something profound out of his talented cast that weighed too heavily on my mind. But to think that he doesn’t come close to achieving the former or latter still boggles my mind.