Last Flag Flying: Manhood

Richard Linklater's portrait of America is in the humanistic spirit of his Boyhood.

For his follow-up to 2014’s Boyhood — one of the most beloved movies of the past 10 years — writer-director Richard Linklater deliberately wanders away from his comfort zone. Instead of a sweet romantic story cycle (the Before series) or nostalgic looks back at stoners (Dazed and Confused, Slacker) and the nuttiness of his native Texas (Bernie), Linklater’s new one, Last Flag Flying, is a military buddy pic about a trio of Vietnam war veterans reuniting for “one last mission.”

What the hell could be cornier than that? But Linklater surprises us. Instead of conducting an exercise in geriatric machismo, he rounds up three of Hollywood’s most skilled character actors — Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne — and sets them on what is essentially a journey of self-discovery. Last Flag Flying is a drama that refuses to be reduced to formula, on the strength of its writing and its performances.

The son of former Navy Corpsman “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) has just been killed in action in Iraq, and it’s up to Doc to arrange for the young man’s burial. In need of moral support, Doc reaches out to a pair of his long-lost ex-comrades, a sharp-tongued bartender named Sal Nealon (Cranston) and hell-raiser-turned-preacher Richard Mueller (Fishburne), both former Marines, to accompany him. Sal is the smack-talking hipster of the group. Mueller comes across as a reformed sinner turned holier-than-thou prude. Doc, meanwhile, is at first simply heartbroken. Their trip, up the Eastern seaboard from Norfolk to Dover, New York, Boston, and eventually to Portsmouth, N.H., gives the three men ample time to become reacquainted.

If that scenario sounds vaguely familiar to fans of classic American cinema, it’s because Last Flag Flying is adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the book that became Hal Ashby’s 1973 hit The Last Detail — a chunk of pure testosterone featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s signature performances, as salty sailor “Bad-Ass” Buddusky, in charge of delivering a convicted sailor (Randy Quaid, in another unforgettable performance) to the Portsmouth brig. If we’re to believe studio publicity, Ponicsan and Linklater see the new movie as a sequel of sorts, a picking-up of the earlier film’s mood and talking points 30 years later, with characters who suggest rather than duplicate their 1973 counterparts.

That’s the theory, anyway. Last Flag Flying proves to be an infinitely sadder film than anything Linklater has done before. Young men’s pugnacious horseplay has turned into something more introspective, with unspoken regrets gradually giving way to last-chance guilty confessions. Linklater, one of modern American filmmaking’s great humanists, is a master at letting his characters display tenderness obliquely, in the guise of ensemble playfulness or even combativeness. Carell’s Doc starts out as the movie’s most pathetic figure — in addition to being a grieving father, he was the sailor Sal and Mueller took to the brig years ago — but he emerges as the unshakable moral center of the story. Meanwhile, Sal never grew up, something he’s painfully aware of, and Mueller seems lost without his wife.

En route, a gallery of American faces and their motivations flit across the screen: Lance Corporal Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) with his “Baghdad boil”; Mueller’s wise wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster); Jimmy Hightower’s mother (a gorgeous turn by Cicely Tyson); and the pasty-faced, officious lieutenant colonel (Yul Vazquez) who doesn’t want the Corps to relinquish the corpse — even dead Marines have to follow the regs. Every single character has his or her own reasons. Linklater is painting a group portrait of the country in Last Flag Flying, blemishes and all. He’s obviously proud — perhaps guardedly so — of the camaraderie he shows us, without resorting to overt displays of patriotic “heroism.” It’s a portrait that will stay with you.

Last Flag Flying
Directed by Richard Linklater. With Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston. Opens Friday.

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