Review: Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater’s latest again explores the influence of the past on the present, but can’t always balance its varied tones.
Review: Last Flag Flying

In three of the most significant projects of his career, Richard Linklater has contemplated a simple truth: that the acts and deeds of our past cast shadows over our present. It was evident as audiences watched young strangers meet, connect, reconnect and more in the writer/director’s Before trilogy. It was apparent as a child grew up to become a young man in the ambitious Boyhood, which cut to the heart of its concept by shooting the film over a 12-year period. And, it was present as teens farewelled high school and others welcomed college in the thematically – but not narratively – linked Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!. Next, the idea sits at the core of Last Flag Flying, which doesn’t reach the heights of Linklater’s other works, but still ponders the same subject. In fact, wrestling with the weight of personal histories is impossible avoid in a feature about three military veterans reunited after three decades. 

As Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, Isle of Dogs) tends to the ramshackle bar that he barely keeps afloat, Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carrell, Battle of the Sexes) sits at the counter. The latter orders a drink, makes small talk, and comments that the former doesn’t recognise him. Old buddies who served in Vietnam together, they’d lost touch over the years, largely due to events during combat. They’re soon rounding up a third member of their platoon, the now-Reverend Richard “the Mauler” Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, TV’s Black-ish) – and, once the trio has reteamed, Doc reveals his quest. With his own son following him into the armed forces and deploying to Iraq, the soft-spoken man is now faced with war’s latest, cruellest blow: burying his child.

Last Flag Flying takes these brothers-in-arms on a road trip to complete Doc’s sorrowful task; however, like every road trip-based film, it also takes them on a deeper journey. Here, the three friends revisit their shared past, its influence on the lives they’ve led, and the unresolved tension that lingers – both between them, and within each of them about the notion of military service – as a result. With Linklater writing with Darryl Ponicsan (Random Hearts) based on the author’s own novel of the same name, it’s a tender trek by car, truck and train that’s filled with weighty reflection; it’s also one with much to say about the state of modern-day America. Although set in 2003 and originally penned in 2005 as an unofficial sequel to the scribe’s 1970 Vietnam-set tome The Last Detail, the struggle of folks trying to grapple with their place not only in the world, but in a world filled with constant conflict that they’ve contributed to in the name of deep-seeded patriotic pride, overtly transcends its time period.

And yet, while the destination that Last Flag Flying heads towards is easy to foresee – for its characters and their individual arcs, for their communal journey, and for the movie’s interrogation of war, authority and the role both have in moulding young lives – the feature fills its running time with crucial, thoughtful detail. Much stems from its protagonists, who Cranston, Carrell and Fishburne play as more than an odd-trio of old pals who veer away from their normal existence, air decades-old grievances and pick at festering wounds. One brash and unrestrained, one shy and shell-shocked, and one sober and reborn, the three aptly but never awkwardly embody personalities forged and shaped by trauma. Sometimes the split of traits between them reads a little too neatly, and sometimes their interplay with a young active soldier (J. Quinton Johnson, The Son) accompanying their trip is overplayed, but they’re fleshed-out figures who represent the different imprints left by difficult circumstances.

Still, like the space inside Sal, Dov and the Mauler that just can’t be filled, Last Flag Flying has its own gaps. While primarily a slow, sombre affair by necessity, the film often draws its narrative out – and, in the process, can’t always find the right balance between its dramatic, contemplative and occasionally comedic tones. Indeed, the chasm between a quietly revelatory moment involving the elderly mother (Cicely Tyson, How to Get Away with Murder) of a fallen colleague and a clumsy scene about purchasing mobile phones proves vast, and noticeable. Such variances might be reflect the texture of life, but their uneven nature never feels like part of Linklater’s design. Rather, simply watching his characters shoot the breeze as they travel across the country, and seeing Shane F. Kelly’s (Everybody Wants Some!!) cinematography chronicle their changing surroundings, offers a much more moving and effective portrait of change, history and the impact of both on a personal and a nation-wide level.

Rating: ★★☆

Last Flag Flying
Director: Richard Linklater
USA, 2017, 125 mins

Release date: 26 April 2018
Distributor: Transmission
Rated: M 

Sarah Ward

Wednesday 2 May, 2018

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay