Considering the Subject, Last Flag Flying Should Not be This Heart Warming
Last Flag Flying honestly seems like it should be the furthest thing from a feel-good comedy, especially since it’s a movie about a father having to bury his son. Director Richard Linklater (who also co-wrote the scripts with Darryl Ponicsan) has always found his strength in the humanity of his filmmaking, and sometimes when things are at their worst, you can’t help but laugh. Because of that, Last Flag Flying is probably the most human film I’ve seen this year.
While there is no arguing that Linklater isn’t an incredible director, the characters are what make Last Flag Flying so great. Luckily Linklater has some truly amazing actors to the tackle the roles, including Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston. While Carell is at the center of the story as a Vietnam veteran who has to bury his son after he is killed in action, Fishburne and Cranston play the respective angel and devil on his shoulders. Reuniting after almost thirty years, these old men quickly fall back into their old habits from when they served together. Something that does wonders for a grieving Carell, but also stirs up memories they all would rather not confront.
All three of the leads give incredibly detailed and nuanced performances, which goes to show just how invested they are in their characters. However, Cranston steals the show as the loud mouth New Yorker who doesn’t always think before he opens his mouth. His role is primarily to poke at Fishburne’s sleeping bear and sow the seeds of chaos where he can. Still, there’s no malice behind his actions, he’s just an old dog that never liked authority and challenges everything. His loudmouth ways put him front and center for almost every scene, which might make it seem like he’s pushing everyone out of the spotlight. However, Cranston’s performance only serves to highlight the grieving Carell and the reformed Fishburne.
Of course, you can’t make a movie like this without some sort of commentary on the frivolity of war, and there are definite comparisons drawn between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. However, Linklater never tries to push the films into taking a side in this commentary. For Cranston, being a soldier was the best time in his life. Even though he doesn’t trust the military further than he can throw it, he says that it’s the only culture that ever made sense to him. Carell’s character is one suffering the most of the three though as he was court marshaled and served time in the brig, a blemish on his record that has followed him ever since. As far as Fishburne goes, he’s the one with a physical reminder of service, a cane that he uses to keep himself propped up and standing tall. However, the real focus of the film is on whether lies or the truth are better in a time of war.
Cranston’s character is one that is adamant that the truth is better than a lie, no matter what. He’s pushing to let the truth be known about the nature of Carell’s son’s death (details which I won’t spoil) and ends up wanting to apologize to the mother of one of his platoon mates who died in Vietnam. At first, the military is painted as an organization that wants to hide the truth, but then the question is asked if white lies surrounding soldiers deaths aren’t best for the ones they leave behind. Not every soldier goes out in a blaze of glory, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be remembered as heroic.
For me, Linklater is a director who can shine a light in even the darkest moments of his films, which is why he was so perfect for this movie. The Last Flag Flying could easily be a heavy, depressing movie about the pointless deaths that happen during war. Instead, though, Linklater hides this in a film that is about three men coming together after decades apart and proving that real friendships never fade. The lighthearted nature of the film manages to accentuate the really emotionally charged scenes in it. There is a lot of suffering in this movie, but the three characters do what they learned to do all those years beforehand, to keep going for the man next to you. Because of this, the angel and devil on Carell’s shoulder prove to be the support system he needs to do the hardest thing of his life, bury his son.