Tuning into his gentler side, Richard Linklater delivers an ode to a soft stoic slice of American patriotism. Three masters of acting deck out the leads of this meandering tale of Vietnam veterans, reunited after thirty years through close tragedy, as they seek to bury their demons.
Carell plays ‘Doc’, against his usual outspoken type; he is a measured, moustachioed everyman, quietly grieving and playing matchmaker to bandy his fellow marines from yesteryear to reconcile their pasts and decode their present. His character is front and centre of the narrative but for the powerful opposing personalities of Sal (Cranston) – a grounded vet, now a failed bar owner - and Mueller (Fishburne), a vet who long shed his reputation for wild vice and debauchery, finding enlightenment in religion.
The year 2003 marks a sea change in US attitudes towards conflict and nationalism. The rise of the internet (cited multiple times as Carell’s universal multitool) and conventional news were replaced with unfiltered public commentary, improved interpersonal communications (alluded to with all three purchasing mobile phones) and a questioning of policy.
Why do we lie to validate the honour of others?
Should we be brutal in our honesty at the expense of hurting someone?
These gigantic questions are never fully resolved by Linklater, but amusingly batted back and forth between Sal and Mueller, frequently refereed by Doc. Though, one certainty you can take away from Last Flag Standing is a partisan, pacifist lilt – war never changes and no one really wants to be there. It is no coincidence that Linklater has set his film during final throes of the second Iraq ‘weapons of mass destruction’ invasion. A captured Saddam Hussein flashes on numerous TVs; him, too, looking exasperated, grizzled and war-torn after many decades of conflict.
It’s great to watch the fantastic chemistry between the three leads
The narrative transparently shifts gears, and you can feel the ultimate destination is in sight, but too often it shoehorns another oblique statement concerning war, on an already well-worn path. These scenes regurgitate the same points, as if Linklater had some drafts he couldn’t quite let go of, and they underscore little more than the futility of conflict. Sure, it’s great to watch the fantastic chemistry between the three leads – Cranston lands the easiest task of chomping away on a cigar as the vet who never grew up, Fishburne hones some of the sanctimonious wisdom of The Matrix’s Morpheus, and Carell brilliantly underplays his physical emotion, all of which are carefully balanced, but their protracted company is unecessary.
The sharper edges of the script have all but been shorn clean off, and it’s a milder ride than expected, but Last Flag Flying is still smart – Sal remarks to Mueller about his distaste toward new rap music on the radio, asking whether he was ashamed of the next generation of black music, completely unaware that the track is by a white rapper. And doubly so, as the track is ‘Without Me’ by Eminem, which discusses the appropriation of cultural heritage.
The film’s sexual politics are a step up from the tawdry locker-room banter of Everybody Wants Some!!
Technically, too, Linklater has carefully composed his film to sweep and frame his characters with enough space to breathe in conversation and give ample opportunity to establish its atmosphere without turning into a middle-aged The Hangover (2009), which in less skilled hands, it could have easily done so. There’s a sense of reverie and respect for his country, in the folding of the flags, the ceremonial aspects of honouring those we love, and the camera is permitted to dutifully follow these through uninterrupted.
The film’s sexual politics are a step up from the tawdry locker-room banter of Everybody Wants Some!! (2015), though Linklater inexplicably still makes space for a stuttered rebuttal of lad-talk as Cranston’s character lewdly taunts a young marine. He never openly condemns this behaviour, and one would assume the defence of it would be for authenticity purposes – these are characters would assert these views – but the young marine in question begins a riposte of sorts which is buried within a sentence under more laddish chatter. It’s a fleeting moment, and not representative of the whole, but as a Linklater admirer, one wishes he would make his stance absolutely crystal clear.
I was warned beforehand to brace for waterworks, but these didn’t arrive. Perhaps the warning was enough, but my instinct was that Linklater’s solemnity and contrived attempt to evoke tears was transparent from the start. Boyhood (2014) and the Before trilogy have an organic truth running through them, permitting a wider range of emotional flow, that Last Flag Flying lacks, but it's still undeniably touching and Carell's muted contribution plays a large part in this.
The endgame is clear from the beginning, but like any veteran regaling war stories, the attention lies in the verbosity of the storyteller, and to that end Linklater partially succeeds. His tale is a morality on war; looking back at the way we have conducted ourselves, learning from the past and how we can apply that to our futures.