New York Film Festival Review: Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater is having a remarkable decade. Between an undisputed modern classic (Boyhood) and a rare but essential indie art house sequel (Before Midnight), he’s already made two of the 2010s’ finest films. Of the two, Last Flag Flying is more akin to the latter, exploring the effects of time and age on human subjects cinema rarely treats with such tenderness. And yet, the film still has the director exploring new and uncomfortable ground, though finding the voice for this new excursion at first trips up this master of human interaction.

Doc (Steve Carell, exceptional and firmly entering the Oscar race) finds his old war buddy Sal (Bryan Cranston) working at a bar in Norfolk, VA. They catch up and before long, they’re at their third buddy’s, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), door, which is the door of a church. Decades after fighting together in the Vietnam War, Doc, a widower, asks these old soldiers to help bury his son, who was just killed in the Middle East (the film takes place in 2003). Sal is a drunk, rough around the edges kind of guy, while Mueller is happily married and now a reverend, despite the reputation his old friends badger him about. Once begrudgingly together, it’s a road trip across the northeast, from Norfolk to New Hampshire. Though of course, with Linklater at the helm, the characters often get sidetracked, choosing more so to live in the moment and experience each other rather then follow a conventional narrative.

And yet, Last Flag Flying is Linklater’s most traditionally plot heavy film since Bernie. The rallying cry Doc employs on the old soldiers is the weakest portion of the film by far. That is, disappointingly, due to an uneven performance from Cranston in the first half, as he doesn’t inform or communicate with the film’s quietly affecting tone (or maybe it’s vice versa), resulting in some awkward, forced deliveries that make the first act difficult to engage with.

But the three leads get into a groove eventually, and most of Cranston’s moments in the second half are flat-out great. Here, Linklater puts forth his greatest strength: using meandering conversation to uncover emotionality and humanity. Once again, the director tells us more about his characters through their simple interactions with each other, as they debate ethics and wonder about their place in the universe, than through the actions they take to advance the plot. Carell, giving the subtlest of the three performances, grounds a game Fishburne and a larger-than-life Cranston. But Doc calling these two soldiers out of friendship retirement reveals a really beautiful, poignant purpose for the viewer patient enough to stick with the film. Though it has to be said that Linklater’s films usually don’t take so long to get going. Once there though, Last Flag Flying is every bit an effective meditation on a later stage of human existence as Before Midnight, even if the sentimentality of the complete package just naturally puts it a peg lower.

Mainstream audiences, however, will undoubtedly appreciate how funny a film this is when it really starts to sing. Once Cranston more properly aligns himself with the tone, his character offers quick yet thoughtful comedy pretty much every second he’s on screen, while Carell perfectly injects some stowed away silliness as the old friends reacclimate with each other.

So yes, while this film lacks a bit of the confidence of Linklater’s recent masterpieces, it also contains a lot of what made them such while offering a loving, generous take on the soldiers who made it home from Vietnam and had to find their place in the world. The uneven first half can’t take away from the director’s knack for putting on display the very essence of humanity and clashing it against the walls our human society put up against it. Last Flag Flying isn’t a game changer, but it’s emotionally charged and personal enough that it fits comfortably and appropriately within this great artist’s catalogue. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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