Coming to theaters from writer/director Richard Linklater and Amazon Studios is a journey bringing the past and the present together for the “Last Flag Flying.”
It is 2003, and Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) walks into the bar of Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who at first doesn’t recognize him. Eventually, Sal realizes he is talking to Doc, a man he served with during the Vietnam War. They are both happy to see one another. After a night of drinking, he asks Sal to join him on a little adventure.
That leads both men to the doorstep of a church run by Rev. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), much to the amusement of Sal. When the three have dinner with the reverend and his wife, Doc asks the two men if he will go with him to retrieve the coffin of his son who was recently killed in Iraq.
Absolutely stunned, the two men agree, and on their trip, the discussion of what happened to the three of them in Vietnam is hinted at. Arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Doc learns from Larry’s buddy Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) how his son died. That changes everything, as Doc decides to take his son home for burial much to the aggravation of Col. Wilits (Yul Vazquez).
It is on the train ride home that Sal and Mueller talk about what happened in Vietnam, Doc keeps himself together and Washington escorts Larry home. The 30 years between Vietnam and Iraq brings about conversations that needed to be had and closure to souls wounded by it all.
Some friendships go on forever.
Carell as Doc is absolutely stunning and that’s the only word for it. There isn’t a lot of dialogue for his character, but then again, I wouldn’t expect there not to be. Every emotion that pours out of Carell is heartbreaking and endearing in different ways. As a man who has lost a son, it isn’t the only thing he has lost in his life. There doesn’t seem to be a resentful bone in his body, and even when he shows a moment of anger, it is justified.
Fishburne as Mueller is a reverend who has embraced a different life. Once a wild Marine, he is now a settled man with a wife who holds him true to the collar he wears. There are moments where Fishburne completely lets loose, and they send the audience into fits of laughter. When he embraces his faith, he reaches out to Doc and shakes his head at Sal.
Cranston as Sal is completely out of control! He doesn’t like it when people play games, believes in shooting straight from the hip and doesn’t give a damn if he drinks from dusk till… well, dusk again. Thrilled to be with his Vietnam buddy Doc, he is shocked to discover the life that Mueller chose after their time in war. He calls everything out, embraces the insanity of life and finds that he has been missing out once he gets his hands on a cell phone. As Carell is the emotion of the film and Fishburne is the spiritual guide, Cranston is all the chaos with no filter in between the two men, and he rocks it from start to finish.
Johnson as Washington is a young soldier who is trying to do what is right both as Larry’s best friend and as a Marine. He gets to know Doc, Mueller and Sal, which helps him understand so much more about being a soldier. Vazquez as Wilits is a man on his own mission who clearly doesn’t understand what being a parent is all about.
Other cast include Deanna Reed-Foster as Ruth, Graham Wolfe as John Redman, Jeff Monahan as O’Toole, Richard Robichaux as Anorak and an appearance by the wonderful Cicely Tyson.
“Last Flag Flying” is an emotional roller coaster, and I am not kidding. One minute the audience is laughing so hard that they are crying to the next minute of crying so hard that they can’t breathe. These three actors are so different, yet in this film, they are perfection with the story they are telling.
The heartbreak that the character of Doc experiences can never be understood, and I don’t think I could even try, but that doesn’t stop us all of embracing every bit of his love, anger and laughter. Asking two men he hasn’t seen in 30 years to join him doesn’t require an explanation because I personally feel that all is revealed as it should be in the film.
One of the two best scenes of the film is when they are all in the back train car and the laughter is strangely contagious with Carell’s Doc having a laughing fit that had me in tears. The second is the scene as Sal convinces Mueller and Doc that it’s time to come to terms make that one event in Vietnam and make it right.
Of course, I’m not being specific because the entire film is an experience that drains every emotion and I gave every bit of that willingly. “Last Flag Flying” reminds us that war, no matter how many years in between, changes young men that eventually become older men with regrets.
These three actors couldn’t have performed any better if they tried, and “Last Flag Flying” is beautifully told and excels in every way.
In the end — their last mission wasn’t on the battlefield.