Last Flag Flying does a great job introducing its characters and their dynamic. There is a lot of potential for the natural conflict that ensues, however the second half of the film ends up tying everything up too neatly. It’s possible the book was just as contrived but it would be a detriment to the written story too.
Doc (Steve Carell) finds his old Vietnam war Buddy Sal (Bryan Cranston) tending bar in Virginia. He takes Sal to find Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) preaching to a congregation. Doc has a very heavy request for his fellow marines but they agree to go on the journey with him and along the way reveal what they went through in Vietnam.
This is the essence of what Richard Linklater is good at: people with different points of view talking. They face big choices where there is no right answer, but Sal usually dominates with bravado so it’s already a bit uneven. By the time circumstances work out to directly parallel a scene from earlier in the movie, it’s too easy and pat a way to show growth. Work for growth. Make us see it in the characters’ organic actions.
It goes further than that. Something happens at the very end to assure all the characters they made all the right decisions along the way. Not only could that information have been mighty useful before they toiled at this road trip, it’s an insult to ambiguity. Jesus, let us leave the movie with some question about whether they made the right calls. Give us something to talk about at dinner.
The book was a sequel to The Last Detail but the movie is not. Even if the cast of The Last Detail didn’t want to reprise the roles, had simply outgrown the roles or had become Randy Quaid, recasting for sequels is not unheard of, especially for revivals after many decades. Perhaps as a standalone story, Last Flag Flying lacks the punch it had as the epilogue to The Last Detail.
From his subtle accent down to his posture, Cranston is captivating before you even hear the words he speaks. Sal’s schtick gets old eventually. That’s probably true to life, these kinds of guys are one trick ponies, but in a movie you’d hope he’ll be a memorable character for the ages. Carell keeps everything inside but has some touching moments displaying emotion. Fishburne gets to explore too when things are too much even for a man of God.
Last Flag Flying deals with the veterans of two wars and I’m sure the stories relate to many veterans. I don’t want to diminish them and I think the film is sensitive and reverential to them. I just found the narrative structure too blatant. I suppose if that’s reassuring to people who’ve suffered real battle, that’s more important than a movie, but I think it could aim to honor the veterans with a more subtly crafted tale.