Richard Linklater is on a “spiritual sequel” streak. His previous film, Everybody Wants Some!!, is a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, and his new film, Last Flag Flying, is a spiritual sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail. Like The Last Detail, Flag is adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who worked with both Ashby and Linklater to adapt his books), but in a difference from The Last Detail, the character names have been altered, which creates space between the two films. You don’t have to know The Last Detail to get with Last Flag Flying, which finds a trio of middle-aged Vietnam veterans road-tripping through post-9/11 America on the saddest mission imaginable.
Steve Carell stars as Larry “Doc” Shepherd, who served two years in a Navy penitentiary for a crime that is alluded to throughout the film but never quite explained, though it involved missing morphine and a Marine dying in excruciating pain, so it’s not hard to deduce. Now in his fifties, Larry seeks out two old buddies from Vietnam, Sal (Bryan Cranston), a motor-mouthed alcoholic who owns a bar in Norfolk, Virginia, and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), once known as “Mueller the Mauler” but now a small-town preacher. Larry’s son was killed in Iraq, and he wants his fellow veterans to go with him to bury his son at Arlington.
So yes, Flag is as depressing as you’re thinking. There are tons of parallels drawn between Vietnam and the Iraq war, and the lies we tell to make war palatable are painted in stark relief. Set in 2003, Flag has an entertaining scene about acquiring a first cellphone, but it’s also full of post-9/11 paranoia and constant reminders that we’re still fighting this war. It’s Richard Linklater, so it’s dialogue-heavy and the three-way conversation between Larry, Sal, and Mueller ranges from inane to thoughtful to funny, but overall Flag is a tough watch, given our current nightmare world and level of burn-out with what has become an unending war.
What buoys Flag are the performances. Cranston gets all the best lines and flashiest role, as Sal talks endlessly and is the type to fill every moment with chatter. He can’t ever leave anything alone, and ends up in a pissing match with the colonel in charge of burial arrangements for fallen soldiers. And Fishburne gets to have some fun with Mueller’s reformed ways as a preacher, veering between the better angels of his present and the demons of his past. But it’s Carell who really carries the weight of the film, slowly shrinking into himself as Larry’s grief threatens to swamp him entirely. Linklater certainly knows how to film a conversation, and he catches all of Larry’s tells, revealing the depths of his grief and, equally important, the moments of relief that seem to catch Larry unawares. Cranston has the most fun part, Carell the most heartbreaking. And Cicely Tyson shows up for a one-scene wonder that will gut you like a dead fish and make you want to call your grandma.
Last Flag Flying is the kind of film stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. It’s really good, and worth watching, but films like this have not fared well recently as people are looking for escape, not searing emotional reminders of how much everything sucks all the time. It deserves to be seen but it’s also totally understandable if someone just isn’t up to it. Linklater has crafted a finely tuned, sensitive portrait of America’s hypocritical love affair with the military (you better stand for the national anthem and SUPPORT THE TROOPS, but Veteran Affairs? Never heard of her), and it’s full of notable performances, it’s just almost impossible to watch. Last Flag Flying is good—very good—but it is a HUGE bummer.