Saturday movie review: Last Flag Flying

When I covered the Denver Film Festival last November, one of the movies I was especially excited about seeing was the drama/comedy LAST FLAG FLYING, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Steve Carrel, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishbourne. The trailers convinced me the road trip movie featuring the oft-comic cast as vets on a mission would be laugh-out-loud funny with a few touching scenes scattered throughout and a sure highlight of my festival experience.

Unfortunately I didn't see LAST FLAG FLYING at the festival. The movie was among the most popular and sold out quickly, so my husband and I missed out.

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We hit the jackpot last week, though, when LAST FLAG FLYING hit the top of my Netflix queue. It took mere minutes after starting the DVD for my assumptions about the film to be flipped as it immediately proved to have far more heart than humor — the case through to the end. That said, I was correct there would be laugh-out-loud moments; it just turned out those gut-busting moments were typically tinged with pain and poignancy.

LAST FLAG FLYING, set in 2003, tells the story of three Vietnam vets who went their separate ways after the war, each dealing in their own way with post-war baggage as well as guilt and silence about one particularly horrid — and slowly revealed — shared experience. The trio reunites thirty years later after the Marine son of one of the men dies during the Iraq War and requests his former buddies accompany him to bury his son.

Mild-mannered Larry "Doc" Shephard (Carell) reaches out first to boorish and boozy Sal (Cranston) for the mission then the two together convince surprisingly converted Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence) to join up.

Time has magnified the differences in the men's personalities as well as how they've dealt with Vietnam, which creates comic relief for the ride, as well as their handling of the situation when Doc learns the truth of how his beloved son died. A truth the government lied about but was revealed by the son's combat buddy, a truth that changed everything Doc and his companions set out to do

One reason I expected LAST FLAG FLYING to be funny was because it starred Steve Carrel. I still consider him a comic actor, though I'm unsure why when he's recently excelled in meaty and very unfunny roles such as John Du Pont in FOXCATCHER, Mark Baum in THE BIG SHORT, and Bobby Riggs in BATTLE OF THE SEXES, to name a few. (Must be the DESPICABLE ME thing sticking in my head.)

As Larry "Doc" Shephard, Carrel once again shines, albeit subtly, sadly, heartbreakingly so. He perfectly plays a man whose loss of his son — soon after other significant losses and vexation with the government's deception — rips him to his core yet keeps the rage and brokenness buried just below the surface. I kept expecting him to explode, justifiably letting loose the pain of his what his life had become.

Bryan Cranston's role as Sal is by far one of his best, I think. He's a jerk. But a loyal jerk. One who says what needs to be said despite how offensive and annoying his words may be — yet fully grasps rare moments when words must be few. His struggle to stay true to his convictions yet kind when necessary proved endearing and unforgettable. 

Despite Cranston's Sal being the obvious funny man of the three, Laurence Fishbourne's Reverend elicited countless giggles from me. Though sincere in his faith, Reverend Mueller couldn't help but be goaded — by unrelenting and raucous Sal, of course — into letting loose with behaviors uncharacteristic of the Christian man he professed to be.  

In a small yet haunting role, Cicely Tyson as Mrs. Hightower, mother of a fallen Vietnam vet, augments Doc's experience portraying the pain and reality of parents of fallen soldiers.

Tyson's scene as well as many others in LAST FLAG FLYING were exceptionally moving to me, despite me (thankfully) having no experience with a combat-related loss of a loved one nor PTSD impacting any of my friends or family. The film ignited in me a deeper appreciation for what those who serve for the sake of our country deal with beyond the battlefield once they return home... or what their family faces when their loved one doesn't return home.

No doubt director Richard Linklater's stellar ability — in addition to the top-notch acting — were key to LAST FLAG FLYING's power and poignancy. Here Carrel dishes on director Linklater and more:

LAST FLAG FLYING (rated R "for language throughout including some sexual references") opened in U.S. theaters November 3, 2017 and is now available on DVD and via streaming services. For more info, visit the film's official site.