Richard Linklater once again directs and co-writes with Darryl Ponicsan an amazing film based on the latter's 2012 novel of the same name, "Last Flag Flying". And, as always, Linklater assembles a terrific cast, highlighting the richness and depth of this production.
It is 2003, 30 years after Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell), Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) all served in the Vietnam War. Sal now owns a rundown bar in Norfolk, Virginia. He's an alcoholic who is constantly drunk and doesn't even recognize his old pal, Doc, when he shows up one night at the bar. Sal tells his one and only customer that he saved Doc's life in Vietnam, to which the much quieter Doc responds that he did not.
Doc is on a mission. He has come to recruit Sal and their other partner in crime, Mueller, who is married and a pastor. Doc's objective is to attend his son's, a marine killed in Iraq, burial at Arlington Cemetery. He has recently lost his devoted wife to cancer and Doc wants Sal and Mueller to accompany him to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Mueller wants no part of this excursion, but his wife, Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster) insists he go along to watch over Doc. After all, it's just supposed to be a quick trip, and she advises it's his Christian duty as a religious man. And, what should have been a simple ceremony turns into an odyssey for these three after they learn the truth about Doc's son's final hours from his best friend, Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson).
Doc decides he no longer wants his son to be buried at Arlington, demanding that he and his companions take the casket themselves on a trek back to New Hampshire, where his son will be buried next to his mother. What ensues is a poignant, often hilarious, journey during which the three of them reminisce and reconcile their differences.
To offer that this is a near-perfect script may be an understatement. Linklater and Ponicsan have penned a screenplay with no false notes, nor a single throw-away line. The dialogue is particularly sharp, to the point and more often than not, laugh-out-loud funny.
The beginning of the road trip features Sal driving and trying to figure out how he never knew Mueller's first name is Richard. His confusion regarding an African-American man with that moniker prompts Mueller to slyly recount all of the famous and infamous black men with the same first name, i.e.: Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Little Richard, etc. --- truly an amusing scene.
"Last Flag Flying"'s discussion of penises by Sal, Doc and Mueller has to be one of the most hysterical in recent memory. And this is exactly the kind of writing which sets Linklater apart from others. That and his ability to choose the right actors.
Each of these men, Carell, Cranston and Fishburne, along with Johnson, are superb. They all reach within themselves to portray these characters with the truth and conviction demanded, warts et al. Cranston plays Sal with all of the bluster he can muster until he realizes he's lonely and tries to convince Doc that he should start a new chapter in his life with him at his bar in Virginia. His is a marvelous performance, which may garner him an Oscar nom.
"Last Flag Flying" is brilliant. The tough questions it raises about our involvement in the Vietnam War have been asked before, but Linklater and Ponicsan put their own stamp on the ongoing debates. Partner this with three outstanding performances, and you have a contender for Best Picture.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
If you're a fan of Richard Linklater's films (the "Before" trilogy --- "Sunrise", "Sunset" and "Midnight", just to name three of his best), it's a must to see his latest offering, "Last Flag Flying". And if you're not familiar with his movies, it doesn't matter. "Last Flag Flying", superbly written and acted, is easily one of the year's best
films, and should not be missed.
Three consummate pros carry the story: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. Buddies from the Vietnam War, their characters reunite after 30 years under tragic circumstances. But we forget completely that they're acting, so incredibly well-written is the dialogue by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsam, based on the latter's novel.
Carell again displays his dramatic acting chops (how can we ever forget "Foxcatcher"?) as grieving father Larry "Doc" Shepherd, whose son was killed in Iraq. He is quietly phenomenal, subdued and totally sympathetic. Cranston's turn is yet another reminder of how truly versatile he is as an actor. Dare I say his "life of the party" serio-comic persona of Sal Nealon --- war veteran turned bar owner --- is Oscar worthy. Fishburne is superb as the reformed pastor Richard Mueller, who has transformed himself from the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed vet Doc and Sal knew from the war.
Linklater's editing partner, Sandra Adair, calls the performances "an embarrassment of riches", so she was careful to "pull out the gold from every single take". Adair is 100% correct about the lead players and their exquisite portrayals.
Complementing the trio are many supporting cast members, most notably J. Quinton Johnson (currently on Broadway in "Hamilton") as an American corporal, and Yul Vazquez as Colonel Wilits, who thinks he's a drill sergeant. Vasquez plays the tough-talking military officer who oversees the processing of those soldiers killed in combat. It is Col. Wilits, in one of his several memorable scenes, who tries vainly to convince Doc he should definitely not view his son's body.
Here are just a few snippets that make "Last Flag Flying" the exceptional film that it is: Sal's fascination with the new technology of mobile telephones (the year is 2003); a clerk at the U-Haul office; Sal putting the moves on a woman after the funeral; the four men letting off steam on the train transporting the son's body, a particularly human episode --- proving there is room for lightness and laughter in our worst moments --- and the touching letter from Doc's son, post mortem.
"Last Flag Flying", to this point, is my favorite film of 2017.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!