By Jim Slotek
By now, the journey-not-the-destination modus operandi of Richard Linklater is understood. You’d no more criticize the director of Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Boyhood for meandering than you would a duck for quacking.
Add to that mix a sense of sadness that grows and, indeed, becomes overpowering, and you have Last Flag Flying, a paean to age, misguided patriotism, lost opportunities and other melancholy things that wallows rather than contemplates.
It’s the story of a Gold Star father and disgraced Vietnam veteran (Steve Carell) who enlists two fellow ex-grunts (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne), to help him bury his Iraq-casualty son – first at Arlington and then, following an epiphany of sorts, at his hometown cemetery.
It’s no coincidence that this sounds like an older, more morose take on the plot of 1973’s classic Jack Nicholson film The Last Detail. Last Flag Flying is taken from the novel by Last Detail author Darryl Ponicsan. The circumstances and back stories change, but the object condemnation of what war inflicts on the homefront (let alone on the battlefront) remains.
The thing is that Last Flag Flying starts out like any of Linklater’s best – with interesting, feisty characters barreling their way through a slowly-developing narrative, propelling the movie with personality and antics. Certainly, that trio of actors is as skilled as any the director has handled.
Carell plays “Doc,” an unassuming customer who shows up at the down-at-its-heels bar owned by Sal (Cranston). Sal, at first, doesn’t recognize his old Marine buddy, who’d been a teen during their tenure in ‘Nam.
Sal is foul-mouthed, dissolute, an alcoholic (not exactly rare among bartenders) and going nowhere. Over pizza and blackout servings of alcohol, Doc’s mission is laid out. Sal is reluctant, but agrees to join Doc to sign up a third caballero, Mueller (Fishburne), a sometime party-animal who now sports a halo as a married and respected minister.
This mismatched “Odd Throuple” is actually good for some mordant humour en route to its inevitable clash with military protocol. Their bete noir is Col. Wilits (strongly played by Yul Vazquez), a by-the-book public relations officer who immediately spots them (Sal especially) as trouble and does everything he can to keep Doc’s son’s glorious burial on track, per regulations.
That’s not happening, of course. After attempting to outright smuggle his son’s body, Doc and Col. Wilits reach an agreement that sees the military accommodate his demand for a hometown burial, provided they be accompanied on the train by a young Marine named Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) to keep everything by the book (including a full-dress uniform burial which Doc adamantly opposes).
In one of a couple of “say-what-now?” coincidences in the movie, Washington and Doc’s son turn out to have been best friends, which means we get to hear the real story of how he died (which is sad and senseless). In layers of jokes, jabs and anger, we discover the incident in Vietnam that ended Doc’s military career (which is sad and senseless). And we see the three seek out an elderly woman with the intent of giving her full details of her warrior-son’s death a half-century earlier (also sad and senseless).
It is not like Linklater to eschew a redemptive ending in one of his movies. And he tries to slap one on Last Flag Standing, but it relies on another of those coincidences I mentioned earlier.
Both Cranston and Fishburne get to chew plenty of scenery, but the temperature of Last Flag Standing can be told by checking the slumped shoulders of Carell’s Doc. It may be my imagination, but they seem to slump more and more as the movie gets heavier.