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Last Flag Flying – Movie Review

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Last Flag Flying – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy VVS Films

Richard Linklater appears to have a fascination for following characters through the passage of time, as shown with Boyhood and his three Before films. A sequel to Darryl Ponicsan’s The Last Detail, which itself was adapted in 1973 with Jack Nicholson in the lead role, Last Flag Flying does feel like reconnecting with old friends. Whether one has read the source material or seen the otherwise un-connected earlier film, there’s a feeling one knows these fellows. The film is mostly about them talking and reminiscing and dealing with the changing tides of decades gone by. As anchored by three excellent performances, this proves to be a strong examination of grief following a tragic passing.

The connection between Sal, Doc and Mueller is strained, but there is a chemistry that helps make the film an engaging viewing. Each character is unique and set about their goals their own way and while a viewer could argue one specific actor is the lead, Last Flag Flying is really a three-person ensemble. Steve Carell showcases the heartbreak Doc is dealing with perfectly. One is immediately sympathetic after the tragedies in his life. It’s a largely quiet performance that Carell gives a ton of warmth to. This is clearly a changed man from the nineteen year old who served in Vietnam all of those years ago.

Bryan Cranston has a tricky role to play as Sal. This is a character that could have been irritating and thoroughly unlikeable. He’s definitely flawed and the film never really asks the audience to sympathise with him. Nonetheless, Cranston walks that careful line and also doesn’t fall into the trap of attempting to copy Nicholson. Sal is mature when he needs to be and a jokester when the script calls for it. He does some embarrassing actions, but never to the point where one hates him. Sal is definitely the member of the trio who has changed the least. Laurence Fishburne shows Mueller is also a new person, as he has taken the pious path. He properly shows his devotion to his faith, but also the willingness to slip back to his old self again.

Richard Linklater’s love for conversations is evident in every scene of Last Flag Flying. The chats between the three in Linklater and Ponicsan’s screenplay feel genuine, as further aided by the lead performances. It’s also fascinating seeing them deal with the different circumstance they find themselves in. In one sequence, when Doc finally sees his dead son’s casket, Sal and Mueller play the devil and angel on his shoulders. We see Doc contemplating their advice in his head and it shows the dynamic between them quite clearly. There’s another notable scene with the mother of one of their fellow soldiers and it’s a reflective scene that captures the proper emotion of the moment.

Last Flag Flying works as a film both on its own and as a sequel to Ponicsan’s book The Last Detail (less so, the film adaptation). Led by three excellent performances, we get to know these three men through the course of the runtime and Linklater’s direction paces it all quite nicely. There’s an investment in wanting them to succeed and the interactions manage to be both humourous and heartbreaking. Even with their differences, these are obviously friends who can bring their own ideas to the table and support each other. It’s a touching film that never descends into schmaltz and it would be interesting to have Linklater and Ponicsan reunite these old army buddies a couple more decades from now.


Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison