AMAZON STUDIOS / LIONSGATE (2018)
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson
Amazon Studios is a damn fine movie studio/distributor. That’s becoming a fact now (to us, anyway). With such a good slate already behind them, and some intriguing sounding future releases, I look forward to watching anything associated with the studio. Last Flag Flying is the next in line for release and centres on three Vietnam vets reuniting in 2003 after the death of one of their Marine sons fighting in Iraq. Based upon the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, the movie serves as a pseudo-sequel to his 1973 movie, The Last Detail (which follows a pretty similar narrative) combining drama and comedy to craft its story.
It’s another very good addition to the Amazon gang.
After his son dies fighting in Iraq, Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Carell) tracks down his fellow Vietnam War squadron buddies Sal Nealon (Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Fishburne) to assist him with the process of burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Circumstances change the plan and the three men end up on a road trip to New Hampshire as Doc decides his son is to be buried closer to home. It’s been thirty years since the trio were together in ‘Nam and their relationship was strained back then due to an event that has shaped them all since meaning the trip leaves plenty of room for old wounds to reopen and the chance to come to terms with the war, the memories, the highs and lows and also a chance for some much-needed fun along the way.
With Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater provides a movie that’s gloomy and paced accordingly, but crucially never slips into melancholy nor does it become overly-sentimental (though it does push the boundaries). From rundown bars to a cavernous Air Force Base, barren train carriages and an intimate funeral, the movie has a brooding atmosphere to it at times and the negative reflections on war and the US Government only add further wood to the fire. However, there’s plenty of humour laced in – never shoehorned in, thankfully – to add some much needed levity to proceedings and the trio of Carell, Cranston and Fishburne are superb together as the odd triumvirate, their performances crashing excellently against each other and delivering good humour and depth to the movie. Carell is at his best when silently reflecting on the magnitude of the situation, Cranston is brash, loud and outspoken and Fishburne delivers as the one-time bad boy turned Reverend – on paper, it seemed easier for the three to fall flat together, but at no point does this ever seem like becoming reality.
The overarching themes of Last Flag Flying are faith and the futility of war. Questions (and opinions) are posed regarding faith in religion and God, faith in governments and faith in your squadron mates and the writing is tight enough to allow these to be included fairly authentically without becoming sanctimonious. The three men’s musings on war are also well written (though at times they become heavy handed) as the opposing views of Sal and Mueller butt heads frequently before being allowed to come together harmoniously. Linklater doesn’t go overly deep into the themes/threads though, and with extra focus, there could have been extra weight added to the story had he done so.
There’s some enjoyable humour in the movie to cut through the more philosophical elements – and the majority of these moments don’t fall into established funnyman Carell’s lap. Cranston’s loudmouth character provides the majority of the individual laughs and the constant bickering between Sal and Fishburne’s Mueller never becomes old – including a moment when Mueller reveals that Eminem is, in fact, white to a bewildered Sal. The highlight of the movie occurs when the three vets, and current-serving LCpl. Charlie Washington (Johnson), share stories of their time together, including deep-dives into brothel stories.
There’s no need to beat around the bush – the soundtrack is awful. It appears that the decision regarding music was to dip into the stock of ‘generic emotional beats’ and the elevator music slathered the movie in a jarring TV movie-esque ambience. At certain times, the Americana feeling was so prevalent I expected Springsteen to swagger onto the screen, guitar in hand, waggling his groin frantically at the camera.
Last Flag Flying isn’t interested in being maudlin or a tearjerker, instead preferring to focus on its well-written and well-rounded characters. There is plenty of time allowed for emotion, and for humour, but the movie succeeds when it allows its leading trio to play off of each other. Enjoyable and effortlessly watchable, Last Flag Flying is a very solid movie indeed.
January 26th 2018