Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne star in Last Flag Flying, a quiet, compassionate drama that is also quite entertaining.
As the film begins, it is December of 2003 and Larry (Carell) has just arrived at a bar in Norfolk, Virginia. It turns out that the bar’s owner, Sal (Cranston), served with him in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. After a night of drinking, Larry talks Sal into taking him on a drive. They end up at a church whose Reverend, Mueller (Fishburne), also served with them. After some catching up, Larry reveals why they are all together: his son died while serving with the Marines in Baghdad and he wants Sal and Mueller to come with him to the funeral. What follows is a road trip that is less about wacky adventures and more about three men reconciling their pasts with their present.
Larry was only eighteen when they knew each other in Vietnam and does not seem to have changed much. He is quiet, polite and lonely after the death of his wife and now his son. Sal is loud, vulgar and not afraid to speak his mind. He is also an alcoholic who never figured out how to live outside of the Marines. Mueller has changed the most. He was a violent drunk in his younger days, but found religion, met his wife and became the respected leader of a congregation. You can see the personality clashes coming and the film certainly does not disappoint. Sal and Mueller are arguing before the road trip even starts. But Last Flag Flying is not about these three men changing each other. It is more subtle, and less manipulative, than I expected.
Chief among the films pleasures is its cast. Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston are both good in familiar roles. They are trying to live with the guilt and responsibility of things they did in Vietnam. While Fishburne’s Mueller has turned his life around and become a man of God, Cranston’s Sal has never moved on. Both actors are able to make these roles their own and Cranston brings some welcome laughs to the heavy material.
But the real star is Steve Carell as the grieving Larry. He does not have a lot of dialogue as compared to his two costars, but what he does say and, even more so, the way he says it, conveys a lot of depth. He is playing a quiet character, yet you are always aware of his presence. It is an impressive performance because of how unshowy it is. He emotes just the right amount and allows the story to unfold around him. It may very well be the best performance of Carell’s career.
Some of the credit needs to go to writer/director Richard Linklater (who co-wrote the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, based on Ponicsan’s 2004 novel of the same name). Linklater is one of the most consistent directors working today. Over the last 32 years, he has directed 19 feature films including 2015 Best Picture Oscar nominee Boyhood. Generally speaking, his films are smart, realistic and human. That is certainly the case with Last Flag Flying. Though the story’s outline is not particularly original, Linklater and his skilled cast are able to create an engaging and very entertaining film.
Last Flag Flying does not break any new ground. It will not wow you with deep insights. It is just a good movie, well-made by a good cast and crew. Sometimes, seeing a good director direct a good cast using a good screenplay becomes a very good experience.
4 out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews