LAST FLAG FLYING: Linklater Shows Heart

Past is prologue in this tale of veterans confronting the next war.

History echoes, and wars make the loudest noise. In Last Flag Flying, a group of fellow soldiers from the Vietnam war reunite as the conflict all these years later in Iraq invades their lives.

Larry (Steve Carell) starts the action as he seeks out his old Marine buddies when tragedy strikes. Even though they haven’t seen each other in decades, it’s these men he goes to when he learn the horrific news that his own son, Larry Jr., has been killed in Iraq in the early days of that military action.

While Larry is ostensibly the center of the story, it’s Sal (Bryan Cranston) who quickly becomes the biggest character in this ensemble drama. Sal misses the good-old, bad-old days, a time when he was living life to the fullest even while living through the hell of war. He’s loud and brash and just the friend Larry needs in this time of grief and darkness.

The counterpoint to Sal turns out to be Richard (Laurence Fishburne), a grunt turned preacher who meets Sal’s doubting cynicism with faith and resilience. Given Fishburne’s past roles, the idea of him playing a gimp-kneed Man of God with gray hair and a cane might seem trite, but he pulls it off in spectacular fashion. His forcefulness and quiet fortitude play well in this circumstance.

The group has a task to perform: retrieve the body of Larry Jr., and after learning of the circumstances of his death, bring him back to his New Hampshire home. After butting heads with the military, the story takes a Planes, Trains and Automobiles bent as the crew makes their way from Dover Air Force Base to his final resting place, even picking up a new member in young Marine Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) in the process.

Along the way, the men confront past demons, revel in technology that was new in 2003 (mobile phones!), and reconnect in real and surprising ways. It’s here that director Richard Linklater, not known for emotionally engaging films, makes magic happen. The scenes of these old friends just sitting around shooting the shit and laughing like a bunch of silly asses make the whole movie worthwhile.

The subject matter of Last Flag Flying is dark, but the characters scratch and claw their way to hopefulness in the face of tragedy. There are times when Sal’s boisterousness feels bit like scene-chewing, but Cranston is so good (as is the rest of the cast) that the end result is a film that looks at the aftermath of war with graciousness and honesty.

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