We're used to seeing very uneven-handed, biased war films from Hollywood. America holds great regard for the brave men and women fighting for their country, and all-too-frequently for those recently portrayed in (often real life) stories on screen too - think '12 Strong', '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi', 'Lone Survivor' and 'American Sniper'. Unfortunately, more often than not, these come off as unbearably tacky and propaganda-like, particularly to international viewers. It's not often that a film - particularly one developed by Hollywood - goes against this grain and shows the United States Armed Forces in an anything-but-gleaming light. Yet if there's one brave enough to do it, it's Richard Linklater - the man behind such unconventional films as 'Dazed And Confused', the Before trilogy, 'A Scanner Darkly' and 'Boyhood'. He's willing to poke the bear and question the role of the army and the American government in overseas conflicts.
Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell, 'Battle Of The Sexes', 'The Big Short', 'Foxcatcher') has lost his son Larry Jr to the war in Iraq. Alone and forlorn, he tracks down two ex-Marines he served with 30 years ago in the Vietnam War, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, 'Why Him?', 'Trumbo', TV's 'Breaking Bad') and Mueller the Mauler (Laurence Fishburne, 'John Wick: Chapter 2', 'The Matrix' Trilogy). Sal hasn't changed a bit, but Mueller is a new man - he's now a reverend with a concerned wife and goes by the name Richard. When Doc asks the pair to come and help bury his son in Arlington, they eventually agree - but when they discover the government hasn't been honest about Larry Jr's death, they embark on a road trip to return him home to New Hampshire to lay him to rest.
Story aside for the moment, this is a fixating film for its three leads. Bryan Cranston seems to be able to do no wrong, going from strength to strength, even in lesser roles (or lesser projects). Here he's the stream roller barrelling through every situation, with Sal a man unconcerned with society's niceties or comfortable silences. Laurence Fishburne plays the changed man well, and the occasional cracks that show off his old personality always elicit great amusement. Yet Steve Carell is stunning here - Doc is a quiet man, clearly in a great deal of pain from losing both his son and his wife, and the portrayal is one with more emotion than we're used to seeing from Carell. It's an understated performance, with a great deal of control, and has to be one of his finest to date.
The film is based on the 2005 novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who adapted it for the screen with Linklater. Taking the angle of the former solider as opposed to simply the grieving father puts the trio in a unique position - they are able to communicate with current officers (who are doling out large helpings of bullshit along with their condolences) in a much more honest way, and we witness insights and reactions that wouldn't be shown to civilians. There's also comparisons between their treatment during the Vietnam war and the troops of the Iraq War, during which the story is set. There's a strong focus on the lies told by the military and the U.S. government, which acts as a motivator for Carell's character to choose not to bury his son in Arlington with full honours. These men - Sal especially - are proud to have served, but conflicted over the way they were treated.
The portrayal of Doc is one with more emotion than we're used to seeing from Steve Carell. It's an understated performance, with a great deal of control, and has to be one of his finest to date.
'Last Flag Flying' is also a huge contrast to Linklater's other recent work. Compared to the colourful and chaotic 'Everybody Wants Some!!' or the epic 'Boyhood', this is largely a sombre affair, tackling some difficult truths, especially for American audiences. There are smatterings of comedy to be found, primarily from Sal's brashness, and they do wonders to keep the story from sinking into a dreary state. Where Linklater shines through is in the exposition - there are conversations, debates, disagreements between the main characters about the right and wrong things to do in this situation, and they're penned beautifully, smartly, and wittily. There's also very minimal use of music, so rather than emotionally blackmailing you in the more moving parts of the film, it's the dialog and the acting that really affects you. The only downside to the writing is that it does fall into some dull patches in the first half, which could have made this a tighter and more remarkable film.
Far from your usual road trip movie, 'Last Flag Flying' gives pause to the purpose of war, the role of government in overseas conflict, grief, friendship, and the life-long camaraderie and dignity from serving in the military. In a time where wars are raging across the planet, as they have for far too many centuries before, this is a subtle reminder of the loss that is endured from these acts. With remarkable performances from Cranston, Fishburne, and especially Carell, this is a poignant story which finely balances sincerity with levity to bring us a war movie far from the front lines.