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Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, based on the 2005 book of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan is a character-rich comedy-drama that rises above its flaws on the back of strong writing and a great cast.
Larry ‘Doc’ Shepard (Steve Carell) is a Vietnam veteran whose son was killed in action in the Iraq War. A lonely widower with no one else to turn to, Doc tracks down his old friends Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). The two served with him in Vietnam and he asks if they could be by his side for the funeral of his son.
Sal is a rowdy alcoholic who owns a rundown bar, while Richard found religion in his old age and became a reverend. The two make quite the pair, basically acting as the devil and angel on Doc’s shoulder and their interactions take up quite a bit of Last Flag Flying‘s running time.
Linklater’s strength has always been his ability to weave complex, intricate and fascinating characters out of a seemingly never-ending stream of random conversation and this movie has that in spades. Whether it’s discussing God, white rappers, cellular telephones or bringing up old war stories, these characters have a lot to say. It’s pretty great stuff, especially when you have such fantastic actors delivering it all. These are very distinct, clearly defined personalities that work really well off each other and the casting is pretty spot on.
Carell gets overshadowed quite a bit by his co-stars simply because of the nature of his character. Doc is quiet, reserved and currently grieving, so it’s understandable that he’s silent throughout most of Last Flag Flying. At the same time, Cranston and Fishburne have so much dialogue that it’s impossible not to acknowledge the discrepancy. Doc has a few very intense dramatic scenes, as well as a couple moments where he perks up a bit and gets some nice banter going, but his buddies get most of the spotlight.
Last Flag Flying balances comedy and drama incredibly effectively. It’s often very funny, with at least one sequence that’s just absolutely hilarious – an extended train conversation where the characters are laughing almost as much as you will. The drama, while definitely swimming in sentimentality, mostly connects because of how fleshed out the characters are.
The movie stumbles any time it tries to make a broader point about politics and war. Pretty much everything that doesn’t have to do with these particular characters and their individual experiences comes across as either ham-fisted or stock diatribe.
Last Flag Flying‘s story also hinges on a few questionable contrivances and at times, characters shoehorn in important plot points in an awkward stilted manner. Something happened in Vietnam that has is still haunting Sal, Doc and Mueller, and the movie is inconsistent when it comes to bringing it up. Sometimes it’s very organic and seamlessly integrated, other times it’s pretty clunky. Considering how strong the writing is for the most part, slip-ups like that stick out like sore thumbs. It’s a solid Linklater film in which the strings are a lot more noticeable than usual.
Yet, for all its flaws, Last Flag Flying is undoubtedly a funny and often quite moving story about friendship, loss and the passage of time. Strong writing and great performances are more than enough to make up for its shortcomings.