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"LAST FLAG FLYING"
(2017) (Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A Vietnam war vet seeks out two fellow vets he hasn't seen for decades to accompany him to his son's military funeral.
PLOT:
It's 2003, and despite it being decades since they've seen each other, when tragedy strikes, Larry 'Doc' Shepherd (STEVE CARELL) seeks out two men he bonded with decades ago in the Vietnam War, Sal Nealon (BRYAN CRANSTON) and Richard Mueller (LAURENCE FISHBURNE). Sal runs a bar and spends most of his time drinking, while Richard has reformed and become a Baptist reverend. Both men are surprised to see the former Navy man and each other, but the former Marines understand when they hear Larry's son lost his life while serving as a Marine in Baghdad.

Larry's request is simple in that he'd like the two men to accompany him to his son's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and while Sal is immediately in, it takes Richard's wife to convince him it's the right thing to do. Things become more complicated when they learn the remains are going to arrive at Dover Air Force Base and thus the threesome travel there where they meet Colonel Wilits (YUL VAZQUEZ) who works as the family liaison for grieving family members of military personnel, as well as Lance Corporal Washington (J. QUINTON JOHNSON) who served with Larry's son in country and is back on medical leave.

With Larry suddenly deciding he wants a private rather than military funeral, his old friends end up having to drop everything to try to help him pull that off. As they do so, they talk, argue and joke about the past and present and what it means to serve one's country and the related sacrifices that often entails.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Oh, war, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons go to fight
And lose their lives
I said, war, huh good god, why'all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing say it again

"War"
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, performed by Edwin Starr

There's a moment in "Last Flag Flying" -- writer/director Richard Linklater's filmed adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan's 2005 novel of the same name -- where one of the three main characters, all Vietnam vets, states that every generation in America has its war. For the most part, that's fairly accurate when you consider the temporal spacing between WWI, WWII/Korea, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the war against terrorism that's currently being waged.

A conspiracy theorist might believe that's more than coincidental, especially when you consider that American military contractors make billions of bucks from military conflict around the world while politicians get to wave the flag as patriots while sending young men and women off into a meat grinder. Whatever the case, war is sometimes necessary to thwart evil, but sometimes it's misguided and even based on or at least fueled by lies.

And that's what Linklater and Ponicsan (as co-screenwriter) are interested in exploring -- lies as related to war and the short-term and long-lasting repercussions and damage that creates for those in the military, their families and friends, and society in general. That might sound preachy or anti-military, but the filmmakers thankfully don't go down that path as they show great respect at times for those who serve and have served.

Instead, they let their messages, for the most part, organically flow from the material of those three vets being reunited by the in-service death and subsequent funeral planning for one of their sons who's just died while serving in the Marines in post-9/11 Baghdad.

At its core, the story is quite simple. That grieving father (Steve Carell) -- presumably sensing that his former military friends would better understand what he's going through than non-military ones, even if he hasn't seen them in decades -- seeks out two men who served with him in Vietnam to accompany him to his son's upcoming funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. The first (Bryan Cranston) runs a sparsely frequented bar and probably hasn't changed much except gotten older since their 'Nam days, while the other (Laurence Fishburne) has transformed himself from being " Mueller the Mauler" into a Baptist minister.

They then set out on a road trip that turns into a train trip when they learn the remains will be returned to Dover Air Force Base and Larry decides -- upon learning exactly how his son died from another Marine (J. Quinton Johnson) who was there -- to opt for a private rather than military funeral. Along the way, they bicker, reminisce about the past (both good and bad), and discuss military service, war, and other related topics.

At times the script sort of meanders and drags the film along with it, and some viewers (and critics) will criticize that the offering loses its way and focus. But I think that's sort of the point as it parallels life and how things don't always go as planned and sometimes segue and veer into unplanned and unexpected directions.

I'll admit it's occasionally slow, but Linklater and company offset that by nicely balancing the raw emotions, debates, and even funny bits into a truly affecting picture, with some powerhouse emotional moments late in the offering. And the performances are terrific all around, especially from Cranston who creates the most complex and interesting character of the three.

Delivering its message (but thankfully not beating you over the head with it) that war isn't good for much and leaves wounds both fresh and decades old, "Last Flag Flying" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 8, 2017 / Posted November 17, 2017


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