As a showcase for a trio of excellent American actors working in a somber, naturalistic key as they shoot the bull, hit the road, and reminisce about the men they used to be and the trouble they once got into, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a modest, bittersweet thing of beauty. I don’t know how the director arrived at the threesome of Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne (their names might have been picked out of a hat for all I know), but they have terrific chemistry. They need to, because that chemistry covers up a myriad of sins including a story that can be at times maddeningly withholding and frustratingly obvious.
Coming after a flawless run of mid-career masterpieces (including Before Midnight and Boyhood), Linklater’s latest feels both heavy and slight. Written by Darryl Ponicsan as a sort of spiritual follow-up to his 1973 New Hollywood classic The Last Detail (which starred Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young), Last Flag Flying is essentially a road trip drama about three men at forks in their respective roads. Set in 2003, the film stars Carell as Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a widower who has just lost his son in Iraq. With a broom mustache, misty eyes, and a quiet way of speaking weighed down by sadness, Carell has no one to turn to for support. So he seeks out the two old war buddies from Vietnam – Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon, a barfly who conveniently owns his own dive bar, and Laurence Fishburne’s Richard Mueller, a reformed sinner-turned-pastor.
Linklater has always been an acute observer of human nature and all of its smallest components and he immediately gives you a sense of who these men are. But he also doles out their pasts with frustrating stinginess. He really makes us wait and wait to learn about their histories, and once he does it’s still too vague. This may, of course, be by design. But it doesn’t do the story any favors. If anything, it makes the actors do even more heavy lifting than they already have to do. Carell’s Doc wants his two estranged former-Marine friends to join him on a road trip to Dover Air Force Base to pick up his son’s casket and accompany him to the burial in Arlington. But along the way, after the three swap tales both dark and light, Doc discovers that his son’s death didn’t quite go down the way he had been told. So he decides to bring the casket to his home in New Hampshire, accompanied by his son’s best friend in the military (J. Quinton Johnson).
There are some big laughs in the movie, but they’re the kind that come as needed relief from so much melancholy. Cranston, especially, gets to cut loose as the trio’s resident loudmouth rebel. Fishburne, as always, manages to do a lot with a little. And Carell carries the burden of loss on his character’s shoulders with great subtlety, occasionally letting loose with a hysterical, high-pitched squealing laugh when the tragic storyline need it the most. These men are all, in one way or another, still reckoning with feelings of betrayal by their country and pride in their service. Last Flag Flying gives you a lot to think about, but what you’re really left with isn’t so much its message, but the poignant, heartfelt company of its three messengers. B