By Casey Campbell
Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a study on life-affirmation through grief and the power of will. Larry “Doc” Shepherd, played beautifully by Steve Carell, lost his wife to cancer before suddenly losing his son in the Iraq War. Knowing there are some things you can’t do alone, Doc asks his long-lost Vietnam war friends Sal, a boisterous Bryan Cranston, and Mueller, a reverent Laurence Fishburne, to accompany him to his son’s funeral. As is typical with road trip movies, things don’t turn out exactly as planned, and the trio go on a journey of self-realization and acceptance of their past transgressions.
Linklater is known for having very “talkie” movies—the brilliant Before trilogy plays out in one hour-and-a-half-long stream of dialogue after another—and Last Flag Flying is no different. The scenes are packed with honest dialogue and room for the characters to be fleshed out without too much exposition. Though the characters feel real, the focus of the characters was skewed.
If it wasn’t proven already, make Last Flag Flying a salient reminder that Steve Carell is a masterful actor in both comedy and drama. His character was so realized and magnetic while being quiet and contained, that he felt like a genuine human being. He was capable of stomach churning grief when seeing his son’s casket and gut-busting humor when sharing stories with his friends in later scenes. There is also barely any score, so the emotions that are felt are purely due to the performances, rather than any uplifting or downtrodden musical accompaniment.
Cranston and Fishburne, unlike Carell, have built careers off of their dynamically dramatic performances on TV and film alike. Though they deliver good performances, they were not nearly as successful as their counterpart, even if they are given more screen time. In fact, that’s where the biggest problem lies: Sal and Mueller seem to be more primary characters than Carell is, even though he’s the one who brought the group together. The discrepancy is there, and it makes you wish the structure were different.
Last Flag Flying is interesting for its depiction of quiet grief and how it affects those around you. Mueller, a reverend, prays for Doc, saying that he will be able to meet his son and wife in time. Sal, on the other hand, tells Doc that he’s been handed the worst card possible, but that he has to be a man and get through it. What neither friend understands is that their well wishes don’t mean much to someone who has so little. He lost his wife, the love of his life, and then loses his son, his “handsome boy,” he tearfully says when looking at his wallet photo of Larry Jr.
In his moments of vocal clarity, Doc questions the war efforts, both the senseless fights he endured back in Vietnam, and the war which took his son. When he looks for someone to blame, he watches the TV screen, which shows President George W. Bush, and asks if he’d like it if he took away his daughters. Sal and Mueller know this won’t help, and try to remind him of the good times when they were fighting together, of the one time they went to “Disney World”—a place of prostitution in Vietnam. But were the good times really that good? The answer is never truly clear. The men laugh and joke and remember, yet Sal is still an alcoholic because of it, Doc went to jail for a period, and Mueller had to get over drug addiction. The story blends the past with the present through dialogue, slowly showing what really happened when they served and what causes them all to feel like victims of war that managed to get away with their lives.
Though critical of the war, the film never strays from being purely patriotic—though never nationalistic.When in the car, Sal and Mueller stumble upon a radio station playing an Eminem song. They joke about race, and how neither feel comfortable with this king of music, but, in the end, Sal dictates that he doesn’t feel like a “white” person. Perplexed and laughing, Mueller asks what he considers himself. “Green,” he says. Like the military.
They are proud of their country, yet are more than willing to acknowledge its flaws. Like the country they are proud to be from, they change with the times and grow.
Overall Grade: B
Originally published at Emertainment Monthly: http://emertainmentmonthly.com/index.php/review-steve-carell-soars-last-flag-flying/