If you were simply to look at the synopsis for Richard Linklater's latest film, “Last Flag Flying,” you might talk yourself into believing it's overly dramatic fare created for little more than awards season consideration.
You could think that, and few would find fault in that assumption.
Bryan Cranston as Sal, Steve Carell as Doc, and Laurence Fishburne as Mueller in “Last Flag Flying.” (Photo by Wilson Webb. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and Lionsgate Entertainment)
The truth is, however, that Linklater took Darryl Ponicsan's novel (the duo co-wrote the script) and morphed a story that could be incredibly depressing into something much more positive and uplifting.
Set in 2003, 30 years after his tour in Vietnam and a brief stay in a Naval prison, Larry 'Doc' Shepherd (Steve Carell) seeks out a couple of his former Marine pals Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne).
But this isn't simply a case of a man looking to reunite with his buddies – not entirely anyway. Having just received word that his young son was killed in action in Iraq, Doc has made the trip to Virginia to see if his old friends will accompany him to bury his son at Arlington National Cemetery.
The reunited trio has a lot of catching up to do, and a lot of unfinished business to attend to, while making their way to bury Doc's only child.
As I said, three damaged vets battling their own demons while taking a road trip to bury a 20-something Marine could be very dejecting if handled in the wrong way. Fortunately, while there are more than enough somber moments, they aren't the true focus of the story. Instead, the focus is on these three men reuniting under difficult circumstances to reconcile things between themselves, and remembering what it was that brought them together in the first place.
Laurence Fishburne as Mueller, Bryan Cranston as Sal, and Steve Carell as Doc in “Last Flag Flying.” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and Lionsgate Entertainment)
And as much as Linklater deserves credit for making this surreal set of circumstances feel commonplace and entirely believable, just as much credit needs to be given the trio of actors that bring the characters to life.
If you look at their respective careers, Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne are about as far apart on the spectrum as possible – Carell is best known for his comedy work, Cranston for cooking meth in the desert in his underpants, and Fishburne for offering Keanu the red pill. But it's those differences that make it all the more real. Doc, Sal, and Richard are nothing alike, but somehow their friendship works (most of the time) because they seemingly balance each other out. The same can be said for the trio portraying them. It's three very contrasting styles, but somehow it works.
I don't know that the film will be the awards season demon it seemed destined to be before the fall festival season started, but it's a good film nonetheless. It's a strong character study into personal accountability and what motivates young men to make the choices they do – for right or wrong.
★★★1/2 of ★★★★★