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‘Last Flag Flying’ (review)

Produced by Ginger Sledge, John Sloss
Screenplay by Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan
Based on Last Flag Flying by Darryl Ponicsan
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston,
Laurence Fishburne, Cicely Tyson,
Yul Vazquez, J. Quinton Johnson

 

What does service really mean to your country?

Does the feeling really change over time or is it something that is born again in every generation with the same fire and fury as the one previous?

And what if, in that desire to defend the country, a veteran finds that they have outlived their own child’s time in service and has to grapple with their loss of faith in the government knowing their son died fully committed to it?

This is the dilemma of Last Flag Flying and I’m not sure that it gave us such a satisfying answer.

30 years after serving together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Hospital Corpsman Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) reunites with his fellow ex-Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and now Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine who has been killed in the Iraq War. After speaking with his son’s friend Washington (J.Quinton Johnson), Doc decides to forgo burial at Arlington Cemetery and takes his son home, traveling up the East Coast to his hometown in New Hampshire. The three veterans find the bonds of service are there for a lifetime that goes beyond their own.

The film starts off rather slow and uses thin stereotypes to introduce each of the three mains. Cranston is boisterous and alcoholic, disturbing to the point of being almost unforgivably grating. Fishburne is the well-worn battle-weary minister with a holier-than-thou facade. It is a fitting foil but the relationship that looks instantly workable on paper spends a tedious first half getting its footing onscreen.

Once there it is full and rich, but the journey is painful at times, including a rather crass back-and-forth on an Amtrak about Mueller’s choice of a black wife. Carell turns out the warmest and most genuine performance of all of them but it is also tragically sad and makes the caricatures of the other two look even more garish.

The backdrop of a war buddy road trip is well worn yet about halfway through the movie it really picks up into something touching that no one would have ever guessed from the first dreary forty minutes of this film. As the characters grow and dive deeper into the sins of their past, you can see the effect that decades of guilt have had on each of them. Sal softens into someone far more pitiable than his early boisterous run. Mueller moves from sanctimonious to sympathetic, the listening ear that Doc truly needs at this point.

Throughout all of this, Washington remains steadfast in his duty to accompany the body to its final resting place, an excellent symbol of the loyalty of many a young man in service to his country.

The pacing suffers in the beginning but it picks up as the film moves towards an ending that is not surprising, but also not completely satisfying for the amount of time it took to get there.

When it came to a close I could not help wondering if I had perhaps missed 10 or 15 minutes that should have been there before the credits. It still performed a decent job of wrapping up all of the loose ends (perhaps a little bit too cleanly and conveniently) but for a movie that was so trying in the beginning it unfortunately seemed a bit rushed as it came to a close.

Last Flag Flying is not the best film covering the reflections of veterans as they are faced with new tragedy borne of the same campaign, yet the second half gives depth and nuance to the difficulties of balancing the skepticism of experience with the wholehearted determinedness of youth.

And who can argue that is not a lesson worth exploring, especially if clumsiness gives way to a better understanding of a complicated relationship bound to repeat itself generation by generation.

 

 

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