LAST FLAG FLYING. Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne. Directed by Richard Linklater. 125 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and sexual references).
In ‘Last Flag Flying’, three Vietnam vets, Sal, Doc and Mueller, accompany the body of Doc’s marine son as he is taken to be interred. A road movie of sorts with plenty of ruminations about faith, service, ageing and the modern world, the script serves as a conduit to watch its three stars play off one another, which they do to profoundly watchable effect. Like their journey, the film is long and meandering, but there is great pleasure and catharsis to be attained as well.
It’s 2003. Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Steve Carrell) tracks down former comrade Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) to his dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia. Doc asks Sal to take a drive with him, and the pair arrive at a Baptist Church to find another Vietnam buddy, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), preaching to his congregation. Over dinner with Richard and his wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), Doc tells his friends that his only son, Larry Jr., was killed in action in Iraq; he wants Sal and Mueller to accompany him to Arlington National Cemetery for his burial. Sal agrees, and Ruth pushes Mueller into going too, if only to “protect” the reserved Doc from rowdy, obnoxious Sal.
The primary drawcard of the film is its leading trio, who take on layered roles with plenty of shared baggage, drawing viewers into their highly naturalised performances and dynamics. Cranston’s Sal is the loudest of the three, a crass but genial alcoholic whose unbridled confidence belies the lacklustre hand dealt to him by life. Self-described as being on ‘the shy side of insubordination’, Sal is the firecracker in the group, who one can trust will always steer the party off course. Cranston relishes his unfiltered dialogue, be it grating against authority figures like Colonel Willitz (Yul Vasquez) or grappling with the now Reverend Mueller’s faith. Cranston’s blend of pathos and blithe disregard for his life’s disappointments give Sal a warmth and charm that it’s tough to imagine other actors delivering.
In contrast with the boisterous Sal, Steve Carrell plays against type as soft-spoken and reserved Doc. After being dishonourably discharged and serving some time due to a vague incident, and now recently widowed and reeling from his son’s death, Doc almost shrinks into himself in every scene, utterly defeated by life. When Carrell allows moments of levity to crack through his despondency, like when the friends discuss taking a 19-year-old Doc to a Vietnamese brothel, seeing his laughter is such a relief for viewers. That such moments are so therapeutic speaks to the power of Carrell’s work – it is only because he draws us in that we share his mirth. The same goes for his flashes of resolve, like when Charlie (J. Quinton Johnson), one of Larry Jr.’s comrades, tells Doc the story behind his death, causing Doc to reroute their road trip to bury his boy beside his wife.
More toe-to-toe with Sal is Mueller, whose transformation from wild GI to peaceful preacher astonishes the other two. Sal tries desperately to coax the old Mueller out, and succeeds in flashes over the course of their trip. Balancing the ‘Mueller the Mauler’ and Reverend Mueller halves of the character, Fishburne excels. No one delivers calm wisdom nor spits anger quite like him, and as Mueller wages a battle with Sal for the vulnerable Doc’s spirit, he navigates a complex tension between the two poles. Fishburne’s gravitas also makes it believable when Mueller starts to bring about some changes in Sal, as the men set aside their bickering to better support Doc.
Director and co-writer Richard Linklater, who has made a string of critically acclaimed features since ‘Boyhood’ in 2011, clearly had some things that he wanted to say in adapting Darryl Ponicsan’s novel for the screen (Ponicsan also co-wrote the script). TV newsflashes show the capture of bin Laden and fragments of speeches by George Bush, while the characters enjoy freewheeling discussions about the wars that they, and now other young men, have fought for their nation. When their conversations veer into observations about technology, the clarity of these undercurrents is lost, although they still generate some food for thought.
Though the route to Larry Jr.’s funeral takes as many detours as the winding screenplay, spending it in the company Cranston, Carrell and Fishburne is a tremendous way to pass the time.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 26.