Think back and you may recall a 1973 Hal Ashby directed film called The Last Detail. A Navy Signalman First Class and a Gunner’s Mate were ordered to escort a Seaman to a naval prison for committing a petty crime. You may read that writer/director’s Richard Linklater’s new comic-drama, Last Flag Flying is a sequel to Ashby’s famously profanity-laden film, but that’s not exactly true.
Linklater’s tale is not a continuation of Ashby’s story. The names are not the same, and only one of the three leads is ex-Navy, though he did spend time in the brig. If there’s a connection between the two films, then it has to be the overall tone of the piece, but there’s little else.
It’s Christmas 2003, though the season is never discussed. Former Navy Corp medic Richard Shepherd, better remembered as Doc (Steve Carell) wants to enlist the help of two marine buddies with whom he served in Vietnam. Doc is on a mission. His son, a young marine, killed in an ambush while serving in Iraq, is about to be buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery. Doc wants his two old colleagues to journey along the east coast with him for the service, but it’s thirty years since the three have seen each other. Doc’s first line of duty is to locate their whereabouts, which he does by simply going on-line and looking them up.
Former Marine Sal Nealon (a craggy Bryan Cranston) now runs Sal’s Bar, a dive in Norfolk. After Doc enters and parks himself on a stool, he tells the barman, “You don’t remember me, do you.” It takes a moment, but once the penny drops, Sal is thrilled to see his old pal. “Can you believe people now go to Vietnam for vacation?” he asks. When Doc explains what he’s doing, Sal, who’s game for anything at a moment’s notice, even if it means tossing the bar keys to one of his drunken regulars, does the driving.
The other ex-marine is Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). To Sal’s amazement, Richard, who during his military days was known as ‘Mueller the Mauler’ because of his zeal for Vietnam whorehouses, is now a reverend. “What happened?” asks Sal. “I grew up,” responds the man of God.
But once at Dover Air Force Base, things don’t go quite as planned, resulting with Doc refusing to allow his son to be buried at Arlington. Instead, he removes the casket, rents a U-Haul, and the three buddies take a journey together that will eventually end in New Hampshire. Doc insists his son will be buried, not in uniform but in his high-school graduation suit and laid to rest next to the grave of Doc’s departed wife. “I’m not going to bury a marine,” Doc insists. “I’m just going to bury my son.”
The film has its storytelling flaws. Once Doc finds out what really happened to his son in Baghdad, the difference between the official account as related by the military brass and the reality doesn’t necessarily feel altogether less honorable. Yet it’s enough to make Doc believe that what he was initially told was dishonest enough that an Arlington burial was now out of the question, even if Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez) insists that the marine was still a hero and deserving of being remembered as one. Plus, the reasons Doc presents for wanting his two old friends with him feel thin. In fact, the more you reflect back on why Doc wants these two long-ago buddies by his side, men he hasn’t seen since they left the military thirty years ago and never kept in touch, it all feels less real and more of a writer’s device. But once you get over that hump and accept that two ex-marines would drop everything happening in their lives in an instant for a forgotten Navy buddy, there’s a lot to enjoy.
Told with surprising good humor as well as the poignancy you’d expect, the three characters, with all of their baggage and individual grievances, are ultimately likable, even if over the few days when they’re together they don’t always seem to like each other. As Sal, the dive-bar owner, Cranston has the showy role. There’s a theatrical broadness to his every action. It’s as if Linklater has directed him to project to those in the back row. Even his dialog has the sound and rhythm of something adapted from the stage. Carell plays against type, coming across as quiet and introspective, damaged from traumas both past and present. But it’s Fishbourne as the reverend, whose present day, calming spiritual demeanor is occasionally punctured by the voice of the man he was thirty years ago, who steals the film.
Like the recent Only The Brave, emotions in Last Flag Flying will run high, but the emotional impact is something that will more effectively pierce the hearts of minds of those who have served, friends of those who have served, and military families in general. That’s not say that others will not be moved by Doc’s plight, but the impact for those whose lives are or have been personally affected will undoubtedly feel things discussed in the film on a considerably deeper level. What should feel all too real to some may come across as maudlin to others. When Sal and Richard, whose attitude towards their military experience remains overwhelmingly negative, still talk of the moment when they first wore their blues, how proud they felt, and how it’s a feeling they’ll never forget, is something that may only be understood by those who have experienced it. Others may not even know what they’re referring to.
MPAA Rating: R L ength: 124 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)