Three strong lead performances and good supporting performances make Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” both spiritedly entertaining and emotionally gripping. Chosen as the opening night attraction for the 55th annual New York Film Festival, the story of three Vietnam War buddies uniting in 2003 and going on a sacred personal mission is constantly involving, as slickly directed by Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, from whose novel the film was adapted.
Steve Carell is deeply affecting with his underplaying as Larry (nicknamed Doc), who, we learn gradually, previously lost his wife to illness and has just lost his Marine son in the Iraq war. The film begins by his going into a bar in Norfolk. Virginia, owned by Sal, played by Bryan Cranston, who doesn’t recognize him at first, as they haven’t seen each other since their chummy Vietnam days, when Sal was a Marine and Larry was a clerk in the Navy.
As we get to know Sal bit by bit, we see him as a cynical wise-guy, over-the-top character and a heavy drinker. He is a skeptic, a vet with a wicked sense of humor and one who revels in being hostile to whatever conventional dogma he encounters, and he has come to view the Vietnam War as a useless one. The superb, enticingly colorful performance by Cranston enlivens and dominates the film—it is that good.
Once the guys connect, Larry takes Sal to an undisclosed destination, which turns out to be a church, and Sal is surprised, as he shuns religion and mocks the idea of there being a God. The situation turns out to be hilarious, as the reverend enthusiastically and dogmatically preaching the gospel to an approving congregation, is none other than the African-American Richard Mueller, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. He has found religion since hell-raising days when as a Marine he was nicknamed Mueller the Mauler. He also drank heavily but has since managed to get off the booze and be happily married. Sal can hardly believe his eyes at the pulpit performance.
Although the situation in which the three soon embark upon is deadly serious--the burial of Larry’s son whose body is being shipped home—the interplay of personalities, their conversations and traveling adventures frequently erupt in comedy. The son is to be honored by burial in the Arlington National Cemetery, but, to the consternation of the military colonel in charge at the Dover base where bodies are shipped, the grieving father decides he wants to have his son interred in his home town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and elects to transport the coffin containing the body by a U-Haul truck that Sal hires.
In an emotional scene, contrary to the officer’s advice that Larry not view the body because his son’s face was shot off, Larry insists and when the coffin is opened he is devastated and breaks down in tears.
Then off the men go, with the reverend wanting to opt out, but unable to bring himself to abandon poor Larry. In a way, the film turns into a road movie, with obstacles conquered and a train stop in New York, where Sal insists the two join him in getting cell phones, just burgeoning into habit at the time, and there is much amusement in the escapade.
Stemming from the Vietnam background is a feeling of guilt on the part of the three. A Marine who was fatally wounded died in much pain because all the morphine had been used by the threesome in drug binging and because of which Larry, who became the fall guy, spent a stretch in the brig.
Sal is especially angry at the duplicity on the part of they military, which falsely portrayed Larry’s dead son as having died a hero, while in reality, when he was buying Cokes for his pals, someone sneaked up from behind and put a gun blast into his head. The truth is learned via the son’s mate, who has been ordered to accompany the body. The surviving pal is played superbly by J. Quinton Johnson.
Because he feels guilty about the morphine situation, Sal takes the lead in a visit in Boston to the victim’s mother with the idea of confessing the joint responsibility. The now-elderly mother is moving played by Cicely Tyson, who has also been lied to with a story that her son died saving the lives of other men. Her thrill at thinking the three visitors are those he saved derails the intent to confess. That scene is among the film’s highly emotional ones, thanks especially to Tyson’s typical performing brilliance.
The tone all along has been rejection of both the Vietnam and Iraq actions, although that view doesn’t detract from the men's pride of having served their country. In that sense, the film wants it both ways, as we see in the ultimate deeply emotional burial scene that honors the flag and the uniform, and as it turns out from a letter to Larry from his son, something the young Marine wanted. I have qualms about the film’s split personality at that point. However, it is clear that it stems from depicting the camaraderie of vets who served as required yet find themselves unappreciated and at sea in the ensuing political aftermath and needing a sense of recognition and bonding, which we see them find in this ultimately very satisfying motion picture. An Amazon Studio release. Reviewed October 1, 2017.