Although press screenings have been going on for the better part of two weeks, the 55th New York Film Festival officially began last night, and it did so with the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s newest movie, “Last Flag Flying.”
Written by Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan (based on Ponicsan’s novel), “Last Flag Flying” tells the story of three Vietnam veterans reuniting in 2003 under less than ideal circumstances. It is a heartbreaking road trip of a movie, with Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) helping their former military buddy, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), bring the body of Doc’s son from Delaware to New Hampshire after the son’s death in Iraq.
Complicating matters is the fact that the three men haven’t seen each other in 30 years an absence which, in part, was precipitated by a mysterious incident in Vietnam. Naturally, over the course of the film the three men dredge up these past memories and do their best to come to terms with what happened. The audience gets to watch as each struggles with both who he has become and who the other two have become during the intervening decades.
Linklater offers up a very personal, rather intimate, style in “Last Flag Flying” as the audience almost becomes a fourth member of the group. We are there as Mueller explains his finding religion (he’s become a Pastor), and as Doc talks of spending time in prison, and Sal—now a bar owner—drinks to excess. More than that though, we question each of their life decisions, we question their motivations, we wonder how those decisions are a reflection of their actions in Vietnam and a fallout from whatever secret it is that they are carrying. Well, I say “secret,” but it’s not a secret from the men, they are well aware of what happened, it’s only a secret from the audience – we are nearly a member of the group, but that doesn’t mean we instantly have all the answers.
The intimate nature of the film is enhanced in this rarely stopping to explain things. With only a few exceptions does the movie ever pause to layout the backstory. Things become clear by how they’re talked about more than via a long-winded explanation.
That said, some moments in “Last Flag Flying” do ring false, and upsettingly one of them is early on, during the first reunion between Doc and Sal. Sal doesn’t recognize his former friend, and the scene makes it seem as though the two men weren’t all that close during the war, something which we find out is incorrect – these men shared a particularly life-altering moment. It is true that Sal has a drinking problem, but that still doesn’t quite make the scene work.
Despite a few missteps, the film is an affecting journey for the audience as well as the characters. One particularly good addition to the group of men along the way is a Marine sent with them, Corporal Washington (J. Quinton Johnson). Washington was in combat with Doc’s son and present on the day the son died. He knows the truth of what happened on that fateful day and feels regret over it, an imperfect mirroring of the secret the three men from the older generation have about Vietnam.
Funny, but not a comedy; dark, but not dismal; affecting, but not pushy; “Last Flag Flying” is a journey undoubtedly worth going on. Fishburne, Carell, and Cranston all deliver powerful performances and play off one another so very well, with Cranston a stand-out among the men. I don’t know that “Last Flag Flying” hits any sort of universal truth about our world, but it is a powerful, multi-faceted tale, one with different points of view being given equal weight. It is a movie not about war, but rather about life and the decisions we make and how those decisions reverberate out for years to come.
photo credit: Amazon Studios