Who better than Richard Linklater to craft a movie about people talking – and in doing so, revealing the quirks and flaws that make them human? Whether it’s Boyhood or the “Before” trilogy, the Texas-based writer-director and indie-film figurehead is always alert to the moments when people drop their public faces and reveal the emotional bruises underneath.
Last Flag Flying doesn’t belong in his personal pantheon, mostly because it’s based on a novel by Darry Ponicsan that sets the lockstep tone, even though the freewheeling Linklater cowrote the script. It’s been called a spiritual sequel to the author’s earlier book The Last Detail, which became a seminal 1973 Hal Ashby film about two sailors (Otis Young and a peak-form Jack Nicholson) tasked with transporting a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to the brig. This latest adaptation of the novelist’s work also concerns three military men on a mission. But the time is different – it’s 2003 – and the names have been changed … though the trio seems vaguely familiar.
Steve Carell, who keeps springing impressive surprises as a dramatic actor, plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a Navy clerk whose Marine son has been killed in Iraq. The introverted ex-soldier, whose wife recently died of cancer, needs to collect his boy’s body for burial. For help, he turns to two pals he hasn’t seen since their days in ‘Nam. Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a fast-talking, hard-drinking jokester cut from the same bawdy branch as Nicholson’s Navy lifer “Badass” Buddusky. Doc shows up at the dump bar his old friend runs in Norfolk, Virginia, to bring him up to speed. Together, they recruit the reluctant Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a whore-mongering marine once known as “Mueller the Mauler” for reasons you might not expect. The older man is now married and a preacher; more importantly, he has no interest in reliving his sinful past. But the gravity of the mission pulls him in.
So off they go to collect the coffin at the Dover Air Force Base and give the younger Shepherd a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. But there’s a catch (the film has more than its fair share): The dead son’s marine best friend, lance corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), tells them the real circumstances behind his death, and it’s something his superiors wants covered up. The hypocrisy enrages Doc. He decides to take his son home to New Hampshire and bury him – the ultimate insult to the military – out of his uniform.
And that’s the movie, three men on the road, reliving the past and trying to forge a way ahead, with a stop in Manhattan for a night of drinking, carousing and trading harsh truths. Nothing wrong with that, except we’ve seen and heard it all before. And The Last Detail isn’t just a good Seventies movie; it’s a great one whose memory hovers over the similarly structured Last Flag Flying like a ghostly rebuke. The compensation comes in watching these three marvelous actors have a go at it, which they do with piercing humor and heart. Linklater can’t protect them from all the script’s potholes, including sentiment, contrivance and a galling mixed-message ending. But spending time in the company of Carell, Cranston and Fishburne? That’s truly is a pleasure.