Last Flag Flying

 

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Telling lies as a way of making America great through its sense of patriotism.

 
Last Flag Flying

Steve Carell (in front), with Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne

 

This well-acted and interesting film comes to feel seriously misjudged - and one's disappointment over that is all the keener because it is the work of Richard Linklater whose Boyhood (2014), together with his celebrated trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, have made him one of America's most venerated filmmakers. With this new film he has turned to a novel by Darryl Ponicsan and has worked with the author on the screenplay and for some time the quality of the writing seems to promise an absorbing experience.

 

The film is set in America in 2003 and starts two days after 'Doc' Shepherd, a widower (Steve Carell), has been notified of the death of his son on duty in Iraq. Seeking support, he renews acquaintance with two former comrades from his own days as a marine, the bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) who has not only found God but has become a clergyman. Initially 'Doc' hopes that these two will accompany him to his son's burial in Arlington National cemetery and they are indeed won over to doing this. However, unexpected developments lead to a rejection of Arlington in favour of a longer journey to New Hampshire where the youth can be laid to rest beside his mother. Thus, Last Flag Flying to some extent becomes a road movie.

 

There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around here. When the three friends collect the body they encounter a young marine (J. Quinton Johnson) who had witnessed the death and this leads to the realisation that what had happened was very different from the official version. This in turn echoes the way in which another death (one in which the three friends had been involved) had been officially falsified - that had been during the Vietnam war and there is a clear implication that the American military in whatever period is keen to promote the image of patriotic deaths in wartime however much that necessitates distorting the facts.

 

These elements cause Last Flag Flying to come across as a film which, even if it asks how much truth people can bear (or indeed ought to be expected to), has a strong anti-military viewpoint. At the same time, despite the contrasts between the three friends, including especially Richard's firm belief in God and Sal's utter rejection of that, the film convinces us that the bond of their shared experiences in Vietnam is something that these three men hold on to for they recognise its value in their lives.

 

This could have made for a fine film especially with a cast this good, although the need to keep all three men on the road together does lead to some plot contrivances. Rather more seriously, even with touches of humour to lighten the tone and provide some variety, the issues treated here come to seem overstretched given a running length of 125 minutes. But, if tightening up would have helped, the worst flaw lies in the film's conclusion. It seems not only sentimental but illogical in backing away from the film's serious anti-establishment stance. One looks for a trace of irony here, but not a hint of it could I find.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vázquez, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster, Cicely Tyson, Graham Wolfe, Jeff Monahan.

 

Dir Richard Linklater, Pro Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater and John Sloss, Screenplay Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on the latter's novel, Ph Shane Kelly, Pro Des Bruce Curtis, Ed Sandra Adair, Music Graham Reynolds, Costumes Kari Perkins.

 

Amazon Studios/Detour Filmproductions/Zanzero Pictures/Cinetic Media/Big Indie Pictures-Curzon Artificial Eye.
125 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 26 January 2018. Cert. 15.