When Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, a subdued, washed-out, unassuming man (Steve Carell) walks into a shabby bar, in the depths of a barren, grey winter, it takes a while for the hard-drinking, craggy bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) to recognise him. They drink to oblivion, and wake the following morning strewn about the bar. Sal drinks some more, before giving Doc a lift to who knows where. It turns out to be a church, and Doc has a surprise for Sal. The righteous pastor at the pulpit – Richard Mueller – is an old buddy too, a fellow Vietnam veteran.
Last Flag Flying; dir.: Richard Linklater; USA 2017, 125 minutes. Our Review: ★★★★/5
While the men share a distant past, they were never particularly close, and have not seen each other in over thirty years. But Doc needs their help. Welcomed to Mueller’s family home – a home still decorated for Christmas – Doc makes a poignant disclosure. Recently widowed, he must now attend his son’s funeral. The body has just been returned from the Iraq war – it’s 2003. He asks the men to accompany him.
Sal is up for an adventure, as always; Mueller is cautious, wary perhaps of his old self – they used to call him Mauler – and attached to the routines which have kept him on the straight and narrow for the last several decades. Doc’s tragedy, however – and Mueller’s wife – convince him to be more compassionate than cautious.
The course does not run smooth for Doc and his fellow vets. An unfolding series of unpleasant revelations, setbacks and difficulties, pushes them forward onto an unexpected road-trip. Perhaps what binds these three men, with very different personalities and very little in common, is their experience of war. But there is more to it than that.
As the story unfolds, other things become apparent. Sal and Mueller, especially, had been callous in youth. The compassion they express now is also due to the humility brought about by the passing years, and a sense of mortality. This sense pervades the film – the coffin they accompany, the disclosures made by a soldier – the son’s friend, Mueller’s infirmity, Doc’s departed wife, and Sal very obviously drinking himself to death.
In counterpoint, there is that other great element of the American narrative: helping your neighbour, compassion, doing the right thing, and the staunch and unassuming integrity of an economically imperilled social class. The kindness of almost-strangers…
This is a film which requires a certain quality of attention, the ability to imagine what it is like to reach a certain age where all the big decisions have already played themselves out, and what remains, more or less, is the task of making one’s peace – what to put right, what to let go, what to accept. The road trip turns out to be a process of sifting, and of coming to terms with what is left.
The men comment on the futility of war, at times quite daringly, given current political sensitivities, but the film itself does not attempt to make a grand statement. It shows instead the simplicity of an ordinary person’s response in the face of such an experience. The film is not about war, but about the humble way in which people affected by war try to give continued meaning to their lives.
One particularly moving moment takes place when the men visit the elderly mother (the marvellous Cicely Tyson) of a fellow Vietnam vet who hadn’t made it back home. He had suffered a harrowing death. Sal had pushed for this visit, almost tiresomely so – the beauty of the characters in this film is that Linklater lets their flaws play out and at times they are as annoying to the audience as they are to each other. Sal’s way of proceeding on this journey was to always push for the truth, believing it is always best to know than not know. Mueller, typically, believes that shielding people from painful knowledge is a compassionate act. The men’s visit to the mother becomes a big test of their collective judgement.
Last Flag Flying, based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel, has a well-known antecedent – The Last Detail – the 1973 Hal Ashby film, written by Robert Towne and also based on a Darryl Ponicsan novel. The Last Detail is a memorable film, and superbly alive – not surprising considering it featured a young Jack Nicholson and was about young men with everything still ahead of them. By contrast, Last Flag Flying is an introspective film – those men are now thirty years older, all passion seemingly spent. It is not as naturalistic as some other Linklater films and there are times when the dialogues might as well take place on a theatre stage. This does not necessarily detract from the film. It’s an actor’s film and the intermittent realisation that the characters are acting feels more moving than distracting. Steve Carell is convincing as a quietly grieving father, who is revisiting the social defeats of his youth; Bryan Cranston provides a stark reminder that impulsiveness and a sense of the carefree are very double-edged things, especially with the passage of time. He is a man who treads heavily where angels might fear to – and in so doing, somehow does some good. Lawrence Fishburne is as wonderful as ever, as a man who has aged into wishing he could tread even more lightly than angels ever would.
Last Flag Flying is also quite a shaggy dog story, which again brings its own pleasures but does require a cooperative audience.
The story is a chamber piece, despite the miles it covers, and lives on in its self-contained universe – as if the characters’ lives might end with the last frame of the film. One can imagine Richard Mueller returning to his family and his flock, having integrated those aspects of himself that he’d tried to erase; there is some consolation in Doc’s travails in honouring the memory of his son, and knowing that he had been a cherished father – but the future somehow seems opaque, and perhaps bleak, for both Doc and Sal.
In this tale of quiet grief and of humble men trying still, late in life, to somehow flourish, what will become of them? Here’s betting that they’ll come up with something, just as they did through the twists and turns of their road-trip.
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.