Last Flag Flying

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Last Flag Flying
"Carell is extremely impressive here."

Richard Linklater has long been adept at telling big stories by way of intimate ones. Last Flag Flying is perhaps his boldest attempt at this yet, focusing as it does on a father (Steve Carell) supervising the burial of his son, who has been killed in the US war with Iraq. The father himself is a veteran of the Vietnam war, and calls on two of his old war buddies to help him as he goes to collect his son's body. Along the way, they share their memories and their thoughts on the Middle Eastern conflict, and find that their feelings about war - if not about the army itself - are very different from those they had when young.

If these characters seem familiar, that may be because they have appeared, under different names, in another film - Hal Ashby's The Last Detail. It's based on a sequel to the book of that name, and is co-scripted by the author of both books, Darryl Ponicsan. But these are older versions of the men we met before. Doc (Carell) has settled into a quiet life, recently supporting his wife through the final stages of cancer. Richard (Laurence Fishburne) has found his vocation as a preacher. Only Sal (a one note Bryan Cranston) still tries to live the way he used to, with the drink and the one night stands and the defensively obnoxious jokes, but there's a sense that this isn't as rewarding as it used to be, that it's rooted in a nihilism that stems from his experiences as a soldier.

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All three actors are highly capable, of course, and though Cranston phones it in, Carell is extremely impressive here. His Doc is anxious and introverted, consumed by his grief yet determined to assert himself against the habits of conformity that have taken his boy. He provides a soulful centre for a film that sometimes loses its way with cheesy, all-too-artificial comedy vignettes. Fishburne combines a centred, authoritative quality with the sense of a man who knows, at some level, that he is merely hiding from his pat misdeeds rather than finding redemption. His role is underwritten but he makes an impressive showing with what he has.

This is a film centred on the actors, and Linklater's direction is unfussy, his camera careful not to intrude on their performances. It's a film full of grey skies, with ambient light causing outdoor and indoor environments to bleed together. Linklater makes good use of the vast space of the aircraft hangar in which Doc first sees his son's coffin, and of the car park outside with its wide open horizon suggestive of the dizzying and unknowable possibilities opened up by death. Doc is a man adrift; given the chance, he will anchor himself to a tree or a wall for security. Yet in that emptiness he seems to see something that has been invisible to him before.

A twee, overly sentimental soundtrack and ill-founded attempts to shock with mediocre jokes hold this film back from its potential, and watching a man wrestle with grief for two hours can be quite hard going, but that aside, there is a great deal to recommend Last Flag Flying. Carell and Fishburne fans, in particular, should make sure to catch it.

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2018
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Last Flag Flying packshot
A Vietnam veteran goes to collect the body of his son, who has been killed in war in Iraq.

Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on the book by Darryl Ponicsan

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, J. Quinton Johnson, Kate Easton, Tammy Tsai, Samuel Davis, Brian Wolfman Black Bowman, Chris Drexel, Lee Harrington, Mark Falvo, Richard Robichaux, Adam Hicks, Dontez James

Year: 2017

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: US


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