Dir. Richard Linklater
Remember Boyhood? Richard Linklater’s Oscar-gobbling epic about the pains of growing up? That was peak Linklater, not least because what followed, Everybody Wants Some!! – note the double exclamation points – was such a crashing disappointment.
Last Flag Flying isn’t quite a return to form, but it’s certainly a return of sorts. It explores familiar themes of nostalgia and male friendship, but in a far more nuanced fashion. It follows three Vietnam veterans, Sal, Richard and Larry, who served in the marine corps together 30 years before the story starts. Larry, a man of quiet reserve and simple tastes, seeks out Sal, a foul-mouthed barman played with bombast by Bryan Cranston, then reunites him with Richard, played by Laurence Fishburne, a reformed alcoholic and womaniser turned Baptist priest. Once together, Larry quietly announces that his wife died and his son, also a marine, was recently killed in Iraq and asks his two friends to help him collect the body from the military and organise his funeral.
Steve Carrell, perhaps the most likeable, relatable actor on the planet after Tom Hanks, imbues Larry with an ocean’s worth of hidden depths. Richard and Sal, meanwhile, bicker at his shoulders like cartoon angels and devils, battling to influence his decisions. All the while, Larry maintains a dignified stillness that’s almost touching, broken only by the occasional expression of tortured grief.
Aside from Carrell’s masterful performance, the writing is sharp, particularly compelling when it roots around the concept of patriotism and what it means to be an invading force in a foreign land. The Americans, it goes, are the only invading force that expects foreigners to receive them with open arms. The symbolism of the flag, too, is also questioned, a poignant topic considering Trump’s recent aversion to NFL players choosing to “take a knee” in front of it.
But compelling concepts can only carry you so far. Last Flag Flying drags along at a snail’s pace, becoming utterly directionless in the last half an hour, with little closure offered by the muddled and unsatisfying ending. Despite the trio of fine performances, Linklater just has too little to say.