What if I told you there was a road trip film about three Vietnam buddies that would make you laugh out loud?
Richard Linklater's powerful ode to veterans young and old — Last Flag Flying — is that movie. It's a film that gets the job done by throwing three great actors together in a car and watching the sparks fly. Instead of pouring melodrama over the experience, Linklater and co-screenwriter Daryl Ponicsan (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) go for the lightness that is often trapped in a dark situation.
Larry "Doc" Shephard (Steve Carell) has a mission ahead of him that ranks higher on the toughness scale than anything he did in Vietnam 30 years ago. He has to bury his 21-year-old son, who has just perished in the war in Iraq. In order to keep it together, he recruits his Vietnam veteran buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, stealing every scene he's in) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). The only problem is these men haven't seen each other in decades, but that's what the ride is for.
Here is what you get when a writer/director gets three actors who can play any speed in the book of performance. Carell's Larry is a reclusive, soft-spoken man who goes for the kinder side of life. Cranston's Sal is an old-school buffoon who means well and has crazy ideas that somehow work out. Fishburne's Mueller is a converted drug addict who sank his life into God, for better or worse. The result is a batch of fireworks between three pros that play for laughs, tears and hits poignancy every time.
Last Flag Flying makes you feel something because it's a lived-in experience. Imagine yourself leaving a bed unmade as you leave for work in the morning, and eight hours later you return to it in all its splendor. That's this film, and it's a good thing. Linklater doesn't overdo anything or have to overplay a scene for emotion; he creates a comfortable and confident environment for the story to play out.
The cast is aces, and it starts and ends with Cranston. A few years ago, I made the mistake of saying we would only know this guy this Walter White decades from now. Oh boy, how I was so wrong on that one! Cranston can play so many emotions and personalities, but Sal was made for him. He is the guy who says exactly what you would like to say, but can't due to politeness or having one less ounce of brass ball tenacity inside you. He's a classic lifer who isn't afraid of tomorrow. A guy who has a plate in his head from the war and a bar he barely tends to, Sal needs an experience, and Larry gives it to him.
At first, you'll want more out of Carell's somber soul, but his speed blends so well with the other two that you'll accept the dialogue delivery that resembles an earnest kid instead of a grown man trying to find a way to memorialize his son. I suppose the actor could have went off the handle and hammed it up, but he goes for the understated route instead, and it works.
Fishburne hasn't tackled a role like this in years, and it's a welcome sight. Mueller has a wild demonic side that he buried a long time ago, but if there is anyone who can bring it back out, it's Sal. Cranston and Fishburne are like two old poker players who know exactly what the other is holding, but don't care to call it out loud. They make for some wonderful laughs.
Linklater is a versatile filmmaker, showing off a boyish charm in the Oscar-nominated Boyhood and a romantic spirit in the Before Sunset trilogy while showing a comedic touch in Dazed and Confused and School of Rock.
Last Flag Flying is cumulative effect of all of those genres and films. There are moments when you will laugh out loud at Cranston describing something, and you'll break down when the three men talk about the war and how their actions led to something tragic. This movie doesn't give you the whole deck of cards up front; it slowly releases information and character development as the running time climbs. I liked that.
Linklater manages to provide a commentary on the cost of war and how there isn't much difference in the reasons for them. A lot of people didn't know why 52,000 souls perished in Vietnam, and the same thing can be said for George W. Bush's war back in 2003. Through inspired writing and dynamic acting, Linklater says a lot about war without pounding you over the head with it. That's not easy to do at all.
When I drove home from Last Flag Flying, I felt good. Great movies always put me in a good mood. I listened to song from the 70's on KSHE and this movie came right back to me. The levity in the film will stick with you.
Well done, Richard Linklater. This may be your best film yet.