Writer: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan (screenplay), Darryl Ponicsan (novel)
Cast: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez
Running time: 124mins
What’s the story: Larry Shepherd contacts Sal Nealon and Richard Mueller, who served with him in Vietnam, to help escort his son’s body home after he was killed in Iraq. But, the journey takes longer than expected as secrets are revealed and past events are revisited.
What’s the verdict: Midway through Richard Linklater’s excellent new movie, Bryan Cranston’s troublemaking Sal says every generation gets its war. Every generation also gets its sign-of-the-times dark military comedy.
Vietnam had Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. Iraq One had David O. Russell’s Three Kings and the Coen’s The Big Lebowski.
Iraq Two receives similar honour guard treatment with Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying. This has two Vietnam veterans Sal and Richard (Fishburne) called upon after thirty years by old ‘Nam buddy Larry (Carell) to help deliver the body of his son back home.
No surprises for guessing a simple one day car journey becomes an odyssey by road and rail in which past wrongs resurface and redemption is sought.
If this seems reminiscent of The Last Detail that’s because Darryl Ponicsan wrote the source novels for both films.
Here, Ponicsan’s also on co-screenwriting duties with director Linklater. Watching their intelligent, character driven story unfold at its own speed and have its working class say on the state of the nation is a joy.
A joy also to see three great character actors immerse themselves in well-rounded, believable roles. Ponicsan and Linklater’s dialogue is poetic and raw, and the trio savour and devour it in a way that harkens back to the Golden Age of 1970s American cinema.
But, Last Flag Flying is defiantly a 21st century movie. Set at Christmas 2003, when America was being sucked into the quagmire of Iraq, it’s about the beginnings of that tragedy and the long shadow of grief and disaster it would cast over the next decade.
It’s about race in America. A black military escort the men are forced to accept, pointedly named Washington (Johnson), describes how gun-crime afflicted neighbourhoods are perfect preparation for the random violence of the Middle East. Elsewhere, Sal is uncharacteristically struck dumb when discovering Eminem is white.
This is a movie about questioning the government’s official line, and also the comforts of faith. About a class of people left behind at home and imperilled overseas.
It’s distrustful of the military (represented by Vasquez’s boo-hiss Colonel) but respects those who don the uniform and sacrifice all.
And it’s about the grief of parents outliving their children. Carell, an actor with Robin Williams’ ability for both hilarity and heartbreak, has an overwhelming moment when confronting his son’s fatal injuries. The actor commands this moment, despite Linklater keeping his camera at a respectful distance within a capacious aircraft hangar.
Pretty heavy stuff. But, as we said earlier, Last Flag Flying is a joy. Linklater and Ponicsan’s script a perfect blend of pathos and humour, ensuring the human drama is never lost. Plus, this packs more laughs than most official comedies.
Lion’s share of the yucks goes to Cranston’s Sal, responsible for several moments of inspired comic awkwardness. Particularly when Sal and Larry first hook up with Fishburne’s “Mueller the Mauler” (expect Robert Mueller to wear that nickname soon).
A reformed character and man of the cloth, early scenes in Mueller’s house with his circumspect wife (Reed-Foster) set the tone for the laughs and tears to come. And Fishburne gamely spoofs the pomposity of the Morpheus persona with his turn here.
Having complete trust in his script and performers, Linklater shoots with an elegant, unfussy style. The director’s regular cinematographer Shane F. Kelly captures the wintry whites and blues of Pennsylvania for an unassumingly handsome film.
Sobering is the realisation that a film set in 2003 is now a period piece. Mobile phones boasting 500 free minutes with your plan are treated as sci-fi made real. The freshly emerging “World Wide Internet” proves handy for tracking down ghosts from the past.
Oscar-moment grandstanding is deftly side-stepped in a film that, we’ll say one more time, is a joy. Unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the year’s finest movies.