Last Flag Flying

Last Flag Flying
Last Flag Flying
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne
In UK Cinemas Friday January 26th, 2018

by Lewis Church

This latest from director Richard Linklater is rooted in issues that feel current, despite its 2003 period piece quality. Whilst its central trio of characters bicker about their need for a cell phone and their dim awareness of the emerging internet, and the Iraq War news footage feels oddly historical, at its core this is a film about militarism, political apathy and fear for the next generation. Those things are as with us now as they were then, and yet this odd blend of buddy road trip and bittersweet commentary never quite settles on how best to achieve this reflection.

It follows three US Marine Corps Vietnam veterans who are brought together by their old platoon medic to bury his son, also a young Marine just killed in Iraq. Estranged for thirty years by a never-quite specified dereliction of duty that left ‘Doc’ (Steve Carrell) in the Navy brig for two years, they confront who they are now and were then. The man who was once ‘Mauler Mueller’ is now a preacher and recovering alcoholic, Laurence Fishburne swelling his frame to prematurely age his body and doling out gospel as advice. Brian Cranston plays Sal, a professional drinker and bar-owner hardened by his dealings with authority and wallowing in his sense of humour and memories of comradery. Sal is the leader, the provoker of various hijinks and confrontations and the open personality to Mueller’s closed. Doc follows both like a lost little brother, clearly reaching out to them in his time of need as he once did in Vietnam.

The film lives by these three central performances. Carrell is as great as ever, his wounded and easily-led character endearing and sad, whilst Fishburne is craggy and honestly self-aware. Uncharacteristically it is Cranston who misses the mark most. Clearly having a whale of a time playing the kind of loose cannon in a role you could imagine might have gone to Billy Bob Thornton, his roguishness never quite coheres into a believable portrayal. There is too much light behind his eyes, too much knowing intelligence in his clowning to be a damaged veteran, particularly in the first half of the film. Cranston is an actor with authority and poise, neither of which his character should have. He feels too composed, too put together and commanding to be an ex-NCO with thirty years on the bottle. Whilst the chemistry between the three is there in later scenes of bonhomie, it is, at first, hard to buy into the trio’s shared history.

Ultimately, whilst Linklater’s latest is far from bad, there are some itchy little problems that keep it from quite living up to its promise. It is a film with multiple endings, odd changes of gear and some patchiness. But the larger questions it is trying to ask, about the perpetual nature of war and the generational hand-me-down of combat trauma and loss, resonate beyond the cinema screen to warn against the waste of lives that make up avoidable war.

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