Last Flag Flying, rated R
Last Flag Flying features a strong cast, an Oscar nominated director, and had great promise, but ultimately doesn’t deliver on that promise. It was extremely slow and has a significant amount of adult language. It was a HUGE missed opportunity for it to be a great film. The film was directed by five-time Oscar nominee Richard Linklater (Boyhood). Linklater and Golden Globe nominee Darryl Ponicsan (Cinderella Liberty) wrote the screenplay based on Ponicsan’s novel, which was a sequel to his novel The Last Detail. The movie was filmed in and around the Pittsburgh area.
As the film begins, it is 2003.We see Larry “Doc” Shepherd, played by Oscar nominee Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) walk into Sal’s bar in Norfolk, Virginia,owned by Sal Nealon, played by Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston (Trumbo). The depressing bar is past its better days, and only has one customer. Nealon is an alcoholic and has a vulgar mouth, some of his language being of a sexual nature. Sal doesn’t recognize Doc initially. The two served as Marines together thirty years earlier in Vietnam, but hadn’t seen each other since. These days, Doc works for the Navy. The next morning, Doc asks if they can take a drive, and they end up at a church, clearly not a destination that Sal is happy about, or familiar with. However when they enter, Sal is surprised to see that the pastor is his old Vietnam buddy Richard Mueller, played by Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do with It?).
The three old friends enjoy reminiscing over a meal at the Mueller home, prepared by Richard’s wife Ruth, played by Deanna Reed-Foster (Chicago Fire). It’s then that Doc, who lost his wife Mary to breast cancer earlier in the year, tells them he had just been notified that his 21-year old son Larry Jr., also a Marine, was killed in action in Baghdad, Iraq. He has sought them out so that they might travel with him to pick up his son’s body, which will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sal immediately agrees to Doc’s request, but Richard, while fine with connecting with Doc and Sal, declines. Being with his former buddies reminds him of a dark and painful period in his life when he was known as Mueller the Mauler. He now walks with a cane due to a badly injured knee from the war and admits to being a recovering alcoholic. But his wife Ruth wisely tells him that he needs to go with Doc and Sal to support Doc during his time of need. Reluctantly, he agrees to go, which we’re glad for, because he’s a good Christian foil in this film.
We see the three drive initially to Arlington, but then realize that Doc’s son’s body will arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware; so off they go. Doc is told by Colonel Wilits, played by Yul Vazquez (American Gangster), that his son died as a hero, and with honor while serving his country. As he mourns, Sal and Richard find out the truth from Lance Corporal Washington, played by J. Quinton Johnson, Doc’s son’s best friend who had escorted the body home. Doc’s son didn’t actually die in battle. Rather, he was shot and killed at a public market by an Iraqi insurgent when they went to buy soft drinks during their mission of moving supplies for Iraqi schools.
Sal decides that Doc needs to know the truth. As a result, Doc decides that his son will not be buried at Arlington in his Marine uniform. Instead, he will take him back home to be buried, and he will wear his graduation suit. Eventually the body is loaded first into a rented van and then onto a train, and we follow the three reunited friends and Washington on the trip back home. On the way back to New Hampshire, they make a stop in Boston to visit with the mother of a former Marine. While on the train, we see a few moments of what we have expected, the former marines humorously reminiscing about their time thirty years earlier, though some of this is done in a crude and vulgar manner.
Understandingly, Doc is somber and soft-spoken during most of the film. The script doesn’t allow Carell much flexibility. Cranston’s Sal is consistently vulgar, but we see that he truly cares for Doc and also the mother of the former Marine. Fishburne’s Richard, never seems comfortable with his former Marine friends, and is always on the verge of heading back home. However, he does an excellent job representing a Christian pastor, especially when tempted to enter into his old ways by Sal. J. Quinton Johnson is a pleasant surprise in his portrayal of Washington.
The film wants you to see the three friends from long ago bond together, but I never felt that fully developed. There are some regrets and guilt from their time in Vietnam, and we are told that Doc served two years in prison, but that is not fully explained even though it’s an important event.
The film is rated R for a significant amount of adult language, including many abuses of God’s and Jesus’s names, and much of the language being of a sexual nature. The film ends with Bob Dylan’s excellent “Not Dark Yet” playing over the ending credits. Themes in the film are regret, shame, guilt, honesty, faith and friendship. We really enjoyed the humor in this film.
The film, with its fine cast and director, had great potential, but overall is one of missed opportunities. This emotional film is extremely slow, and overly long at 125 minutes. It never developed the characters – you really wanted to feel like you were tagging along on this journey of old friends reminiscing and talking about difficult subjects such as war, death, heaven and faith. Instead you couldn’t wait to get off the train. The foul language will keep many people of faith away, and the boring plodding of the film will keep others from even renting it.