Given that Richard Linklater’s filmography is so readily associated with adventuresome young men rocking out in cars, it’s strange to realize that he’s never made a road-trip movie. It’s far more surprising that his first one, Last Flag Flying, is in many ways a discourse on American atrophy, following characters who’ve been drained of their idealism and all its attendant comforts. The film, based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2004 novel (itself a sequel to his 1970 debut, The Last Detail, which became a 1973 Hal Ashby film), is autumnal and unexpectedly reflective, a journey that betrays no sense of wonder toward the American landscape. It follows three Vietnam War veterans as they travel from Virginia to Portsmouth, New Hampshire along the I-95. The skies are overcast, the buildings run down, and it’s almost always raining.
This gray mood suits the film’s lonely characters, who are reunited after 30 years to perform a solemn act. After losing his son during the early days of the Iraq War, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) recruits former fellow Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to accompany him to a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. The three old friends are defined by the means they’ve taken to run away from their memories of war. Doc became a family man but then lost his wife to cancer and his son to battle; now he lives alone in the shadow of a naval air base. He finds Sal drunk running a bar under a bridge in Virginia, prone to fits of enthusiasm and rueful fury, and they locate Mueller in Pennsylvania, happily married and serving as a pastor. “We were all something once,” Sal says early in the film. “Now we’re something else.”
Last Flag Flying, co-written by Linklater and Ponicsan, is colored by how time reshapes our sense of self, embracing some memories while occluding others, and it ingeniously folds us into a similar state of reflection and uncertainty about previous eras of false optimism about national values. It takes place in 2003, nearly two years into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a nebulous war on terrorism; the fog of 9/11 has cleared, and many Americans and most other Western democracies are increasingly rattled by domestic surveillance and military bellicosity. One long, hilarious scene of cellphone humor conjures the major cultural shift of the era, but the enduring historical markers of the moment pass by on televisions in the background of many scenes: Saddam Hussein, filthy and just snatched out of an underground bunker; George W. Bush, smirking through consolations and expansionist bravado. Within the film’s intricate generational schema, these images become almost painfully mundane, just a few notes in a lifetime’s steady drumbeat of disillusionments. Like Before Midnight, Last Flag Flying is both gimlet-eyed and philosophical enough to question the lasting worth of youthful romanticism.
Patriotism here is less an obligation than a burden, and that weight is made manifest as the coffin of Doc’s dead son, Larry Jr., is first draped in a flag and then placed on rollers in a steel case. When Doc, Sal, and Richard arrive at Dover Air Force Base to meet the body, Larry Jr.’s best friend, Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), informs them that the circumstances surrounding the young Marine’s death differ from the government’s official record. Throughout the film, the political always has personal implications, and this shock prompts Doc to refuse a hero’s burial for his son, and to bring him back home to New Hampshire. Sal and Mueller lead the fraught negotiations to release the body, confronting military brass and their own frustrations with a nation that lies to its soldiers and its citizens. Their protest isn’t entirely successful, as the lance corporal is assigned to attend to the coffin and report to his commanders about their progress.
This confrontation begins the second leg of Last Flag Flying’s road trip, and until this point it’s unclear how successfully Linklater and Ponicsan might navigate the film’s overwhelming symbology (from flags and uniforms to clerical collars) and the inevitably schematic nature of its portraiture. Cranston veers irksomely from gentle charm to irascible hysterics, Carell initially appears trapped in the deer-in-the-headlights brand of understatement that marks his dramatic work to date, and Fishburne, sonorous but withholding, seems to be the only actor who seems at ease with the film’s theatrical style of speech, which unabashedly persists in framing and reframing some of the film’s broader questions about time, duty, and what it means to be a good citizen. If early dialogue scenes appear a bit leaden, they’re nonetheless effective in creating the vibe of a group of men struggling to discover what remains of their common ground, and the film overcomes its ubiquitous, baggy iconography by painstakingly enacting how difficult it is for these men to confront their pasts and challenge their preconceptions about God, country, and personal ideals. It’s about the power of these symbols, and how important it is to think critically about them.
Carell, as the youngest of the old friends, helps the film locate this thoughtful, openhearted nature. As Mueller uses God to hide from his past as a Marine they called “The Mauler” and Sal flails through the years substituting one addiction for another, Doc clings to his past, despite an undistinguished career in the armed forces. He’s bereft of love and family, and as the Marines are the only identity he has left, he toils as a stock clerk at naval supply store. Last Flag Flying never ignores his grief, and Carell beautifully illustrates how Doc’s fear and reticence thaws as he ushers his friends out of their prolonged isolation. His journey to reconcile his sadness and his frustration and ambivalence with the corps is the film’s most quiet arc but ultimately its most devastating, as Linklater resolves his characters debates about duty and protest with an act that places equal importance on word and deed.