Who wouldn’t want to go on a road trip with Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, and Bryan Cranston? Last Flag Flying, the latest film from director Richard Linklater, is a decent enough movie on its own, but its three lead actors, whose resonant performances offer an understated balance of drama and levity, make it a great one.
Last Flag Flying is the “unofficial sequel” to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, which just means that Last Flag Flying is based on the sequel to the book that The Last Detail was based on. There’s no actual continuity, film to film. In The Last Detail, two navy men (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) are tasked with escorting a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison where he’ll serve out an eight-year sentence for attempting to steal forty dollars from a polio fund. Along the way, Nicholson’s character insists on giving the young man the good time he won’t experience for the next eight years.
Last Flag Flying, the book, follows the same three men thirty years later, but the movie adapts the characters with new (if similar) names and backstories. (No surprise a film like this one would come from Linklater, who has previously played with telling stories over a long period of time in projects like Boyhood and the Before trilogy.) Steve Carrell plays Larry “Doc” Shephard, a mousy ex-Marine who did sit out the last years of the Vietnam War in naval prison, but not for trying to steal forty dollars. When he finds out that his son, Larry Jr., has been killed while serving in Iraq with the Marines, he asks his old war buddies Sal (Bryan Cranston, as Nicholson’s spiritual successor) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) to go with him to get the body.
And so Last Flag Flying plays out as a road movie: the three men first drive to the military hanger in Delaware where Larry Jr.’s body has been sent, and then take the train back home after Doc refuses to give his son a military burial at Arlington. This is all to the frustration of the stiff-necked Colonel Willits (Yul Vasquez), who sees Larry Jr. as one of their own.
Where most movies tend to go high, Last Flag Flying goes low. It’s a very quiet movie; most of its scenes are set in places you’d want to use your inside voice, like church or on a train. The choice moments where someone yells are thus pleasantly — or unpleasantly — startling. The moment where the quiet and reserved Richard unleashes a string of shouted expletives at a delighted Sal, for instance. Or when Willits barks at the young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson) tasked with accompanying Sal, Doc, and Richard that he should kill the three men before letting them take Larry Jr.’s body back home for burial (which he’s only sort of kidding about).
Certainly deserving of recognition are the cinematography (Shane Kelly) and the production design (Bruce Curtis). The film is simply shot, but there’s a kind of intimacy to the camerawork that pulls you in. There’s one scene on the train in which Sal and Doc sit next to each other. A good few minutes pass where of the two of them only Sal speaks, but the camera lingers on a medium shot of both men, rather than cutting the silent Doc out of the frame. The camera takes on the perspective of someone sitting in the seat across from them. You’re not just another moviegoer eavesdropping on characters though the barrier of a screen; you’re there on the trip with them. Likewise, Curtis’ design constructs the settings with the kind of meticulous detail that human eyes can zero in on, but cameras usually can’t or won’t: the snarky signage covering the dive bar that Sal runs, for example, or the dirty fingerprints on the train window Doc stares out of while Sal rambles on.
But it’s the performances of Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne that stay with you as you leave the theater. Talented actors can always bring out the best in each other, and the interactions of these three on-screen offer a little something extra: they feel real. Realism isn’t something we always look for in our movies; sometimes they’re going for poetry or comedy or melodrama. Done right, though, realism can strike a deeper chord than any of them. Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne play out an honest interaction between three people who were once brought together by circumstance, formed a bond out of their ghastly situation, and then parted ways expecting to never see each other again. In a different sense, it’s the same kind of feeling you get when you run into somebody who you knew in high school. You never wanted to see them again because that part of your life is over and done, but it’s also the only thing you two have to talk about so that’s where the conversation keeps returning to.
That’s what Last Flag Flying is built on: conversation, rather than action. Carell’s character is generally too preoccupied with his son’s death to talk much, which leaves most of the talking up to Sal and Richard, who may have been friends once but thirty years later don’t have much left in common. Richard views the war as a shameful era in his life, one he’s making up for now by working as a pastor and abstaining from drink. By contrast Sal — rude, alcoholic, cracking inappropriate jokes left and right – misses it, because there he had a sense of belonging. It was there that he had purpose, in contrast to his lonely life back home. Through their conversations, the long train and car rides become brief meditations on war, life, morality: how Richard can believe in God when there are so many horrible things that happen out there; whether Saddam is grieving for his lost children as Doc is grieving for his; on how the United States somehow expects the countries it invades to welcome the occupation with open arms.
If Doc is responsible for moving the plot along, it’s Sal who really seems framed as the main character — in part because that’s how Nicholson’s character was framed in The Last Detail, but mainly because he talks the most. My god, does he not stop talking. Cranston does his job very well, playing a man who always needs to be at the center of attention, and who grows churlish if people ignore him for too long. He’s also primarily the comic relief, though Linklater’s script walks a very fine line between funny and annoying that occasionally trips and falls onto the latter side. A succession of mildly racist comments directed towards Richard grows increasingly tiresome as the film goes on, as when Sal asks Richard why he married a black woman, or whether hip-hop music makes him ashamed to be black. Still, Cranston — long admired for both his comedic and dramatic abilities — is generally able to pull it off, varying the boorish humor with genuine caring for Doc and stubborn defiance against Richard’s prim new persona.
The movie’s ending undoes it somewhat; it’s almost tangibly saccharine and leaves you searching for reasons why it might have ended that way other than that Linklater couldn’t come up with a better one. It’s unfortunate that the ending has to be the weakest part of it, because that’s what’s freshest in your mind when you leave the theater. But Last Flag Flying is a road movie, after all; it’s really more about the journey than the destination. The plot isn’t so much the point as it is a vehicle for character development. The questions raised aren’t really meant to be answered; they’re just meant to make you think a little. And if the destination ends up being kind of a letdown, at least you made the journey in some pretty great company.