Last Flag Flying, now entering its second week in Chicago theaters, reminds me of Neil Young’s 1990 album Ragged Glory. It’s a rough, but casual, meditation on American themes, made with relaxed, subtle mastery. If the film feels a bit underwhelming on first encounter, I suspect it will gain from repeat viewings—it’s full of subtle characterizations and charming grace notes, and these things can become more resonant once they’re more familiar. Last Flag mostly plays out in relaxed scenes where the primary characters bullshit and catch up; director Richard Linklater (who cowrote the script with Darryl Ponicsan, on whose novel the film is based) isn’t interested in telling a story so much as studying these men, and he gives them plenty of opportunities to reflect on their pasts, express their current beliefs, and learn from each other. The insights are buoyed by ingratiating good humor, the characters often telling jokes or cracking wise. The humor is nicely integrated into the movie—you’re always laughing with the characters, never at them.
Last Flag begins in late 2003, when Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrell) tracks down his old marine buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) in Virginia. Sal now runs a bar (formerly a bar and grill, but the kitchen shut down years ago), and he uses his work as a bartender as an excuse to nurse his drinking habit. Larry recently lost his son, who was serving in the marines in Iraq, and he wants his old friend to join him when he goes to the funeral. Sal agrees, but before they head off to the service, the two men track down another old marine buddy, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who became a reverend after leaving the armed forces. While Sal and Larry both idealize their days in the marines, Mueller has changed—he’s no longer the tough-talking, hard-living soul he once was and who Sal continues to be. Still, he joins the men on their journey after his wife insists that he goes.
What follows is a slow drive to Delaware, where Larry’s son’s body has been shipped, and then to New Hampshire, where Larry decides he wants his son to be buried. Along the way, the men make stops in New York City and Boston, ingratiate themselves with a young marine charged with escorting the corpse, and drink lots of alcohol.
This basic plot not only showcases the characterizations, but the actors. Cranston gives a grand, theatrical performance as Sal—you always sense the loneliness buried beneath the character’s macho, life-of-the-party exterior, as Cranston lingers on his lines, drawing out their emotional subtext. (His performance makes you realize the material could have worked as a play.) Carrell—playing the simple, boyish Larry—makes a good foil to Cranston; his performance is introverted and soft-spoken where Cranston’s is loud and external. One senses in Larry’s instinctive deference to others a lifetime of being made fun of. It’s nice to see Carrell do so little in a movie—he usually tries to chew up the scenery—and in underplaying, he delivers some of his best work. Fishburne splits the difference between Cranston and Carrell’s acting styles, conveying the internality of Mueller’s faith as well as traces of the brasher man he used to be.
Last Flag takes Mueller’s faith seriously and is respectful toward the characters’ service history. Sal, Larry, and Mueller may regret some of the things they did in Vietnam, but on the whole they appreciate having been part of the marines, and the filmmakers respect that sense of honor. Yet both the characters and filmmakers express cynicism toward the actions of the U.S. government, which sent marines to die in Vietnam and Iraq when, as Larry states at one point, neither country was a direct threat to the United States. When the three men reach Larry’s son’s body in Delaware, they learn from another soldier from the young man’s troop that he didn’t die in battle, as Larry was originally informed, but that he was shot by an armed robber while off duty. Larry, disgusted about having been lied to, refuses to bury his son at Arlington National Cemetery (where the government wants to bury him), opting to take him back to his hometown instead. This decision prolongs his journey with Sal and Mueller, but it gives the men more time to bond, which clearly benefits the grieving Larry.
The film conveys an air of muted sorrow with its wintertime setting and beat-up locations (rental car offices, cheap motels, dive bars). Everything and everyone seems to have had better days. Yet there’s nothing patronizing to Linklater’s depictions of these environments—they feel functional, lived-in, and even a little inviting. One particularly nice stretch of the movie takes place on an Amtrak, and Linklater conveys the small pleasures of train travel in a manner that recalls the recent documentary In Transit. (Actually, the whole film feels a little like an Amtrak ride in how it chugs along and offers opportunities to take in scenery.) Like that movie, Last Flag uses travel to consider internal journeys, showing how a long, slow trip can prompt reflection and possibly personal change. The changes Last Flag depicts are subtle (there are no great epiphanies at the end), but they’re still moving to watch. Sal, Larry, and Mueller’s rediscovery of friendship coincides with their rediscovery of personal honor, which the film suggests is strong enough to weather a moment of national shame.