Richard Linklater’s new film “Last Flag Flying” is not about war. There are no battle scenes, no bullets flying over massacred bodies, no blood and gore. It is about three middle-aged Vietnam veterans dealing with the repercussions and the longevity of war 30 years later. As he so deftly does with all his films, Linklater sees another side of wartime and communicates it through reflection and humor in “Last Flag Flying.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, a sequel to his renowned work “The Last Detail,” “Last Flag Flying” is the story of three Vietnam vets, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) who reconnect 30 years after their service to bury Doc’s son — a soldier killed in the Iraq war. The men embark on a road odyssey, sharing the outcomes of their lives and contemplating the ever-changing world around them.
The three leads are captivating in their distinct ways of coping with the past and their memories of combat. Sal is a cynical bar-owner with a penchant for drinking who talks crudely and has a tendency to crack jokes no matter the situation. His flippancy is the result of a deep-seated guilt that he has never been able to escape. Doc has a quiet, restrained approach to dealing with his experiences in war. The death of his son has reignited the tribulations of Doc’s time in Vietnam, drawing on war’s contingence in military families. Finally, Mueller has found a faith in God and has become a preacher at his local church, trying to put his years as a Marine behind him.
Set in 2003, the film delves into issues surrounding the aftermath of 9/11, the emergence of mobile phones and the rising aversion toward the government. These issues are all still relevant today, perhaps even more so, which prevents “Last Flag Flying” from feeling dated. It explores the inherent contradictions of any institution. Best exemplified through Sal, who reminisces fondly about Vietnam, mainly because of his youth, but refuses to take orders or respect a Marine lieutenant after the war. After a lie about the nature of Doc’s son’s death is uncovered, the three men begin to question the credibility of the government — a worry that has since escalated (both in the film and in real life).
With “Last Flag Flying,” Linklater crafts a story that blends humor with tragedy. In reality, grief and feelings of loss are often accompanied by comic moments in the most unexpected of times. Linklater and Ponicsan’s script is hysterical, pushing out a series of sarcastic remarks and witty one-liners. A certain scene shows the three men recalling the amusement that came with their duty, fusing a genuine laughter with a more somber catharsis.
Simple, understated and refined, “Last Flag Flying” is a fitting entry for Linklater into the war genre. Relying on jocular and contemplative dialogue rather than fast-paced action, the film gives its actors room to immerse themselves in the guilt, remorse and loss associated with a post-war existence. Carell specifically disappears into the role of Doc, playing a man so overcome by sorrow that every movement is painful. “Last Flag Flying” honorably recognizes that the sights of war are forever ingrained in the mind and continue to shape the lives of its veterans every day.
“Last Flag Flying” will be released everywhere on Friday, Nov. 3.
Email Daniella Nichinson at [email protected]