Last Flag Flying – movie reviewby James Robins
In Last Flag Flying, Vietnam vets reunite for a road trip to bury a soldier son.
The film opens in 2003, during the US-led invasion of Iraq. Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell), a Vietnam veteran, finds out his son, also a Marine, has been killed during the fighting. He seeks out former comrades Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) in the hope they will accompany him to bury his son at Arlington National Cemetery.
The cross-country road trip that follows hinges on Linklater’s command of character and fluid dialogue. Cranston is the stand-out as the gruff, gravel-voiced misanthrope and wise-ass of the group. Fishburne’s character has repudiated the behaviour that earned him the nickname “Mueller the Mauler”, donning cassock and collar as a reformed church man, though occasional outbursts of cursing hint that his repentance isn’t complete. Carell is something of a nonentity: his version of grief is to shrink deep inside the folds of his coat, hidden behind a moustache and thick glasses.
During the journey, the men contend with, and reflect on, their own legacies: the war they fought in Vietnam and the new war that none of them seems to disagree with, even though it’s robbed Larry of his only child.
The film is an adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name. Written in 2005, the book is a sequel to his 1970 debut, The Last Detail, which became a Hal Ashby comedy starring Jack Nicholson. Linklater and Ponicsan co-wrote the Flag screenplay.
The way military service is treated as a badge of honour, regardless of whether that service was honourable, is the fulcrum of the film. At one point, Sal vents: “Every generation has their war. Men make the wars and wars make the men. It never ends!”
He feuds with an officer responsible for the discharge of bodies to grieving families, spitting at his insistence that each and every one “died a hero” or was “an inspiration” to the country. His cynicism tips over into rage: against the futility of America’s purposeless adventurism, against the endless scenes of closed caskets.
But this rage against futility does not survive the final scenes. At the film’s close, there is a long passage that not only overturns the posthumous wishes of Larry’s son but silences Sal’s cynicism. Two of the three are lured back to the uniform – the Marine blues – and the folded flag which damaged them in the first place.
Video: Transmission Films
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This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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