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Movie review: Talk-heavy 'Last Flag Flying' searches for the complex meaning of military service

POSTED November 23, 2017 7:13 a.m.
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“LAST FLAG FLYING” — 3 stars — Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster; R (language throughout including some sexual references); Broadway

"Last Flag Flying" is a bittersweet and searching tribute to military veterans, specifically those who served in Vietnam.

Richard Linklater's film follows three vets as they transport the body of a fallen soldier. The story opens in a rundown bar where a pair of old friends reconnect after decades apart. It takes a moment before the foul-mouthed, ill-tempered owner recognizes the soft-spoken man at the end of his bar, but once Sal (Bryan Cranston) makes the connection, memories start flooding back. Doc (Steve Carell) served with Sal back in Vietnam and has returned with a special request.

It turns out that Doc's son Larry followed his father into the military but was killed in action in Baghdad. Larry’s body is on its way back to the U.S., and Doc is hoping to get support from an old friend as he faces the experience. Sal, to his credit, is more than happy to ditch the bar and hit the road with his old friend.

Before they head for the airport, Doc and Sal set out to add a third member to their party, a legendary roustabout named Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). But, to Sal's surprise, Mueller has forsaken his rowdy ways and become a Baptist minister. The reverend is initially hesitant to join the party, fearing the influence of his old associates, but with a little convincing from his wife, Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), he agrees to the trip.

The setup suggests an "angel on one shoulder, devil on the other" scenario for Doc, but the reverend soon reveals that his rough nature isn’t hiding too deep beneath the surface. Rather, "Last Flag Flying" becomes a road trip movie about three old friends as they take account of what happened to them in the war and where their lives have gone in the time since.

Their accounting takes a sharp turn when they arrive at the military airport and discover that Doc's son wasn't precisely killed in action, but rather in an Iraqi convenience store while he picked up some items for his fellow soldiers. The hard-nosed Col. Wilits (Yul Vazquez) insists that Larry's sacrifice is still deserving of a burial at Arlington National Cemetery, but Doc decides to take custody of the body and bury it back home in New Hampshire.

The bulk of "Last Flag Flying" follows Doc as he heads home, with his loyal friends still in tow. Linklater's film often feels as if it were translated from a stage play, given the lengthy conversations in Sal's old car or at other locations. (It was actually adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan.) Over the film's 124-minute run time, the principals explore a variety of issues, not the least of which is the conflict they feel between their frustration with the protocols of military authority and the patriotic pride they feel for having served their country in the armed forces.

The effort to address and explore that tricky balance leads to moments in "Last Flag Flying" that may feel politically charged, but Linklater's effort isn't quite an anti-war film. Rather, the director has created a trio of effective portraits that tries to tap into the complex feelings veterans may have for their service. The performances feel uneven at times (Cranston’s Sal feels a bit broad, especially next to Carell’s near-silent Doc), but the film's biggest shortcoming is that it just takes too long to get where it is going, veering off on periodic tangents that don't feel essential to the film, such as a scene in New York City when the friends are buying their first cellphones.

Overall, "Last Flag Flying" has more going for it than working against it. Linklater's effort is ultimately aimed at the heart and intended as a tribute to the men and women who served.

“Last Flag Flying” is rated R for language throughout including some sexual references; running time: 124 minutes.

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