Set in December 2003, Last Flag Flying sees Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne play Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, Sal Nealson and Reverend Richard Mueller, three war veterans who served together during the Vietnam War. The three men haven’t seen one another in over thirty years but after Doc’s son, a young Marine, is killed while serving in the Iraq War, he finds Sal and Richard and asks if they’ll attend the funeral. So begins an emotional and testing journey for the trio.
Like much of Richard Linklater’s previous works (which include the 'Before' trilogy, Dazed and Confused, and Boyhood to name just a few), Last Flag Flying is a film in which not a lot happens and takes a ‘slice of life’ approach to the plot. The film struggles with pacing at times and, at a running time of 2 hours, is just too long, but fortunately Last Flag Flying is given a lease on life thanks to its three central performances in Carell, Cranston and Fishburne.
The casting is note-perfect here with lead Carell’s grieving Doc recalling some of the actor’s earlier roles in films like Little Miss Sunshine and Dan in Real Life – there is even the odd Michael Scott moment in the film’s lighter scenes. Fishburne’s character is a pastor who provides the enlightened voice of reason and faith, whose belief in God is not paralleled by his faith in man. Rounding them off is Cranston who audiences will be delighted to see plays the absolutely ‘mad one’, and whose sense of morality revolves around a not always credible fixation with telling the truth.
Cranston is the stand-out of the three, getting the film’s best lines and energetically embracing his role as the comic relief. Mind you, Fishburne gets some pretty cutting and funny lines all his own, and while Carell’s character is undoubtedly the film’s emotional centre, Fishburne works well as a balance between Cranston’s anarchism and Carell’s sobriety.
Filled with musings and conversations about life, faith, war and patriotism, Last Flag Flying provides few if any observations that are actually new. Rather, its strength lies in its three leads and their undeniable chemistry. Conflict between Fishburne and Cranston makes for some good banter, but it is the comical scenes where all three actors feature (the film’s theme of friendship here drawing resonance with works of Linklater’s like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!) that provide the stand-out moments. However, a ‘buddy’-style comedy is not the movie Linklater is going for. As a result, one ends up with a somewhat deflated feature wrapped up with a touching but not totally fulfilling finale.