Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Reverend Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.
I’ve never really been a big Richard Linklater fan, his movies have just never done anything for me. I found none of them that memorable nor enduring but in discovering “Last Flag Flying,” all of that has changed. This movie is Linklater’s most adult and ambitious feature to date, even surpassing “Boyhood.” With the combined talents of Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne, Linklater could have had all three men sitting in a room for two hours watching paint dry and it still would have been most impressive.
The film takes place in 2003 just after America has invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein’s regime. Back in the States, Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Steve Carell) has just lost his wife and to make matters worse, he has just been informed that his young son, Larry, who joined the Marine Corps one year earlier, has been killed in action while serving in Iraq. On his way to Virginia to see his son laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, he stops off along the way where he meets an old Vietnam War buddy, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a man who owns and operates his own bar. Initially, Sal doesn’t recognize Doc but once he’s reminded, he is more than happy to remember. The two men spend a little time catching up with each other before Doc asks him if he’d be willing to drive with him up north. Without even knowing where or why Sal agrees and off they go. They stop in a small town and enter a church where the pastor, Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), is preaching to his congregation. Afterwards, Doc and Sal approach him and introduce themselves and all three men play catch up back at Richard’s house. Once there, however, Doc opens up and informs them of what happened and asks them both if they would join him on his trip to bury his son. Originally, Richard makes excuses for not wanting to go, telling his wife that they represent a dark period in his life but she reminds him of who he is and that family and friendship is more important than anything else and that right now, Doc needs him. So all three Marine Corp buddies, who haven’t seen each other in over 30 years, head out on a road trip to Virginia.
When they reach Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Doc is informed that his son died in the line of duty and is a hero but while he is sitting with Larry’s coffin, Sal discovers from a young Marine, Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who just happened to be Larry’s best friend, that he wasn’t actually killed in the line of duty, rather, he was killed by an Iraqi while shopping in a market for his platoon. Outraged that the military lied to him, he states that as his father, he will not have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery as previously planned but will instead, take him and bury him in his hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Naturally, the military frowns upon this but they are helpless to do anything and so Doc, Sal, and Richard leave with Larry’s coffin. When they realize that their car is too small to handle the coffin, Sal and Richard go into town to rent a U-Haul and all three men are on their way. That is, until, they are stopped by the FBI over some wisecracks Sal mouthed off in the U-Haul office, claiming that Richard was actually a radical Muslim with ties to terrorism. After being held briefly, the military intervenes and when Doc states that he is still taking his son home, they offer to ship the coffin by rail. All three men as well as Charlie, head off on the long trek home and discover that while they haven’t really changed in over thirty years, in many ways, surprisingly, they have.
Watching Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne interact with each other and work their individual magic, is a sight to behold. Doc is very quiet and unassuming while Sal is never afraid to open his mouth and say exactly what he’s feeling. Richard, on the other hand, tries to cater to both men and because he is now a man of God, being around Sal for the first time in decades brings out the old foul-mouthed Marine he once was and watching him occasionally switch between his preachy pastor persona to the vulgar and scatological soldier he formerly was, is worth viewing alone. At first, all three men have so vastly opposite personalities, it’s hard to believe that they were once best friends but as the story progresses, we get small glimpses into their military background. Unlike most other films that would feel the need to share so much unnecessary exposition with the audience just so we could know what they were talking about, here, director Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan (who also wrote the book the movie is based on) never truly explain some of the experiences all three men shared, including one where Doc ended up in the brig. Over the course of the film, bits and pieces of one particular story the men went through together comes to light and because all three men know exactly what happened, they never once have to remind each other by recounting the whole story, for our sake, and this decision is deftly handled by Linklater. We all have that one friend, or friends, that we did something with that we all remember so we never have to tell it all over again, we just have to mention it and we all know what we’re talking about.
One scene in particular, which takes in the baggage car where Larry’s coffin is, has all three men plus Larry’s best friend Charlie and watching the scene unfold, we learn how Sal and Richard helped Doc, who was much younger than them, get laid for the very first time in his life and the scene as a whole, feels refreshingly real and authentic and as an indie filmmaker myself for over thirty years, I am guessing that Linklater gave them an overall idea and then let them improvise because some of the laughter that permeates throughout the scene, never once feels fake or staged, and you actually find yourself laughing along with them. This is what acting is all about, and sometimes, improvisation can be an actor’s best friend. By the end of the movie, things are not tied up nice and neatly, we are left just as we were when we were first introduced to each of them, wanting to know more about them. Even though Doc has lost his wife and son, life goes on but now he has two old buddies who proved, beyond a doubt, that real friends, are there for you no matter what.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand January 30th from Lionsgate