NYFF Review: Last Flag Flying is An Award-Worthy and Thought-Provoking Road Trip.
Last Flag Flying is the big screen adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name. Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishbourne) are three friends that served together in Vietnam nearly thirty years ago. The Vets haven’t seen each other since but are reunited after Doc learns that his son has been killed in Iraq. As Doc attempts to deal with the loss of his son, Sal and Richard join him on a road trip to transport his son’s body from Dover Air Force Base to their hometown in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
I was completely unaware of Ponicsan’s novel prior to seeing the film’s trailer a few weeks ago. After seeing the trailer, I researched the novel and learned that Richard Linklater has been wanting to turn it into a film since 2006. Linklater has worked with Ponicsan for years and has discussed various ways that they could turn the novel into a film. It is clear after seeing the completed film that Linklater wanted to tell a story that would resonate with audiences while asking them to think about the effects of war and the countless number of lives that have been lost as a result of war.
Last Flag Flying is Richard Linklater’s best film since Before Midnight. It is a road trip comedy but also a hard-hitting drama. The story is thought-provoking and isn’t afraid to ask big questions that will certainly spark conversation among those who see the film. The film examines war and how everyone that dies while fighting in a war is labeled as a hero that died while protecting their country. There is a great scene where Sal and Richard talk to Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) about the death of Doc’s son. They learn that the story that Doc was told about his son’s death may not actually be the truth. It is an eye-opening moment and one that instantly makes you think about those who have died in a war. The film poses the question, are the stories that we hear about the death of a soldier or marine what really happened or is it a lie that has been told to cover up the truth?
Linklater’s direction combined with Ponicsan’s script is a winning combination. The film isn’t afraid to let these friends share a few laughs together such as a scene where they joke about how Doc lost his virginity to a prostitute in Vietnam or the scene where they decide to buy a cell phone. There is this perfect mixture of light-hearted moments as well as genuine moments showcasing personal problems that each of them are afraid but must ultimately address. Ponicsan’s script is multi-layered and doesn’t just focus only on Sal and Richard helping Doc as he mourns the loss of his son. That is a big part of the plot but there is a lot more to this story than just that.
Throughout the film, Sal and Richard argue about their viewpoints and how they should or shouldn’t be handling the current situation with Doc. Sal has no tolerance for bullshit and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. He constantly fights with Richard about his views on God and how he feels he has changed since they last saw each other. We learn more about these two men and how Richard wasn’t exactly a saint while he was serving in the Marines. He has since become a man of God and married Ruth, who he believes changed his life.
Bryan Cranston as Sal is great as is Laurence Fishbourne as Richard. The two have great back and forth banter that is as comedic as it is thought-provoking. Cranston and Fishbourne’s chemistry reminded me of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men. They constantly criticize one another because they don’t see eye to eye but as time goes on, they ultimately help one another realize their flaws and push each other to think about things from a different perspective.
Steve Carell as Doc is without question the film’s MVP. The role of Doc is unlike any character that Carell has played before. This is Carell’s best performance and will surely earn him an Oscar nomination. Doc is incredibly low-key and humble but Carell’s performance is layered with emotion. The scene where Doc asks to see his son’s body in the casket is heartbreaking. Carell brings the perfect amount of raw emotion to this scene and just nails it. You can tell that he is trying to keep it together but he just can’t process what he just saw and can’t even begin to understand how his 21-year-old son is dead.
Cranston, Carell, and Fishbourne are all perfectly cast and work together with such ease. This film relies on each one of these three actors as the film is all about their friendship and their time together. There is a secret that all three of them have kept for over thirty years. This plot point doesn’t get brought up until about midway through but it does lead to a very powerful and emotional scene featuring Cicely Tyson, a mother of one of the men that Doc, Sal, and Richard served in the Marines with.
While I found the film to be engaging, entertaining, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, I can’t help but wonder what parents who lost their children due to war will think of the film. I commend Linklater and Ponicsan for not being afraid of tackling important issues and asking questions that I believe should be asked. There are a lot of things to think about when watching this film. Some of the topics discussed will more than likely upset certain individuals. I can definitely see hardcore conservatives being incredibly enraged by some of the statements that the film makes. This story has a lot to say about the military and government and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture about how they handle certain things. I don’t think that this is a bad thing because we need more film’s that ask questions while taking risks. I always appreciate filmmakers who aren’t afraid to tackle big issues and spark debate. I didn’t think Linklater would be one of them but I am glad he is.
Last Flag Flying is award-worthy and a film that you will continue to hear about throughout award season. Steve Carell has earned himself another Oscar Nomination while Cranston and Fishbourne deliver two of their finest performances to date. Last Flag Flying is a powerful experience that is sure to start a conversation and will be hailed as one of the most daring films of the year.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for Last Flag Flying is an 8 out of 10.