“Last Flag Flying” is a solid movie. I enjoyed watching it. But once it was over, I filed it away in the archives of my memories and didn’t find much reason to pull it back out and examine it further.
“Flag” is a spiritual/pseudo sequel to “The Last Detail” –the Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude”) directed, Jack Nicholson starring dramedy from the early ‘70s—and the screenplay was co-written by Daryl Ponicsan (with director Richard Linklater) and is based on his book of the same name which was a direct sequel to his “The Last Detail,” the book that the original movie was based on.
The character names and some of the details have been changed, making the connections between the two more indirect, but they’re clear enough. Both are road trip movies. Road trip usually connotes fun and excitement, but in both stories they are sad journeys punctuated by empathy and humor. Originally it was two Navy men and friends escorting a third to prison from Virginia to New Hampshire for a petty crime. “Last Flag Flying” takes place in 2003 and sees two former Marines and friends, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne), helping a third, Larry (Steve Carell), transport the body of his son, who was killed in action in the Iraq War, back home from Virginia to New Hampshire. The way these characters know each might sound familiar: twenty years earlier, Sal and Richard escorted Larry to prison. Like most sequels, pseudo or not, it’s the same, but different.
Brian Cranston’s Sal is clearly Jack Nicholson’s character from “Detail.” Cranston, though, doesn’t merely imitate him. He doesn’t affect his throaty crawl of a voice or any of his mannerisms. But he does have that rumpled cool, that I don’t give a fuck attitude, and it comes off natural, not actorly. It’s a very good performance. Of course, he has the luxury of playing a memorable character: scoundrel-ish, but with a moral-ish code, and a healthy anti-authoritarian streak (I like the oxymoron: a life-long marine who doesn’t like taking orders), but he takes full advantage of the role.
Fishburne and Carell don’t stand out as much, but both are good. They have less showy roles, Carell especially. Fishburne does a nice job of delving into the dichotomy of his character. Richard has retired from Marine life and become a preacher. He is pious and a true believer who has put his hard drinking, drug abusing past behind him. But he allows himself to slip back into his foul mouthed, angrier ways when pushed. What’s fascinating is that these callbacks to his former self do not interfere with whom he has become, who he is. A lesser movie, I think, would have pitted these two sides against one another, positing his new self as a façade, all in the service of DRAMA! But that’s not what happens. Richard has changed. He truly believes in what he preaches, and his fallbacks into an angrier, louder, foul mouthed person do not show him to be a hypocrite, but a complex man who maybe hasn’t completely shaken his past self but doesn’t let it affect who he has become either.
Carrell is a little less successful in his role. He underplays it well enough and is disarming with a natural empathy, but there’s still something off in his performance. I like Carrell, and I even stuck with “The Office” well past its sell-by date partly because of him, but there is something about his acting, especially when he plays against type as he does here, that doesn’t quite gel with me. He’s quiet, soft-spoken, grieving, a big change from his clueless, buffoonish Michael Scott from “The Office.” But there’s a self-awareness to his performance that makes me notice it as such, a performance. You can tell he’s acting.
The movie’s directed by Richard Linklater, and it’s probably one of his least artsy artsy movies. Linklater has made successful mainstream fare, like “School of Rock,” but he generally leans toward the artier side of the film spectrum, such as his “Before” trilogy (“Sunrise,” “Sunset,” “Midnight”) and the Oscar nominated “Boyhood,” heavy on philosophical discussions, lengthy scenes of people walking and talking. “Last Flag Flying” lands somewhere between the two modes. Most of the movie is still made up of long conversations, but there’s something a little more straightforward about them. They don’t push into the abstract, the metaphysical, they don’t question the meaning of life. They’re more grounded. Why do we keep going into unjust wars? Why do we follow these orders? Questions asked by men who fought in Vietnam and one who’s now lost his son to the Iraq War.
Tough questions, but the dialogue might be a little too on the nose, too obvious, but I applaud how Linklater nicely balances these heavier, darker moments with levity and empathy. At one point the leads are on a train with the son’s coffin in the cargo hold. The three men sit around the coffin with Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), an active marine and the son’s best friend, and tell bawdy stories of their time in service. There’s a lot of laughter and banter, but I kept waiting for the shoe to drop, that moment where shit gets real, where Larry’s laughter turns to tears. But it never happens. Then I remembered, this is Linklater. He doesn’t do melodramatic. It’s one of many reasons I like his films. Here he allows a moment to breathe, a moment of levity, a moment to bond.
I like how each lengthy sequence of dialogue exists to elaborate on the details of the characters, who they are, what they’ve become, what they stand for. There’s a reason for each scene: getting to know these people. And it lends an excitement to each one; you wonder, “What am I going to find out next?” Early on, Sal, who doesn’t accept the person Richard has become, successfully coaxes his old friend out by incessantly needling him while the trio drives to Arlington. You get a good sense of who Sal is, hard headed, unaccepting of change, and you get to see the two sides of Richard clearly as he tries to contain himself, but then lets loose when he’s finally pushed too far by Sal. And you learn all of this through the dialogue and the characters’ interactions.
After all this, I still feel like “Last Flag Flying” is just good. I don’t mean to be condescending, but that’s all the movie engendered in me, a feeling of, “Yup, solid.” When it ended, I turned to my friends and we agreed that it was good and discussed how it tied to “The Last Detail.” But then as we exited the theater, our conversation turned to any movie but the one we had just seen. After a half-hour of this, I brought it up to my friends. We all stopped, looked at each other and said, “Yeah…it was good.” What else was there to say? We shrugged and headed home. I don’t know what’s missing, what secret ingredient it would need to be great. But sometimes good is good enough, and “Flag” is good enough. At the very least, “Last Flag Flying” reminded me to check out “The Last Detail” again.