The 400-Word Review: Last Flag Flying
By Sean Collier
November 14, 2017
Patriotism tends to sail best on calm seas. Removed from difficult circumstances and trying times, professing love of country is easy; it is not difficult to cheer for one’s homeland in the World Cup, for example. As life gets muddier — an inevitability — the role, and nature, of patriotism changes. It can become nearly impossible to maintain amidst chaos.
A prescient exploration of this subject is at the heart of Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater’s superb drama of soldiers and remembrances (and an informal sequel to the Hal Ashby film The Last Detail). There is an elegant argument here that the truest path to patriotism is through defiance.
So — if this film is widely seen — it is likely to generate some debate. (One hopes it will, anyway.)
It is 2003, and Doc (Steve Carell) has lost his son in the early days of the Iraq War. Himself a Vietnam veteran (discharged under dubious circumstances) and without any remaining family, he finds himself drawn to a pair of fellow former Marines — Sal (Bryan Cranston), now the owner of a quiet bar in Virginia, and Richard (Laurence Fishburne), now a pastor — for something like support, or at least companionship, as he goes to receive his child’s remains.
The trio finds a military machine not dissimilar from the one they served; there are lies and obfuscation, ceremony and regulation, bureaucracy and nonsense. There is time to reminisce — even to laugh — in such surroundings; there are also long, hard questions with no ready answers.
Carell has a unique ability to command a scene with silence and stillness. It’s a trait he previously demonstrated in Dan in Real Life and Foxcatcher, and it is largely unique to him; something about his reputation for over-the-top comedy renders him more captivating when he is fully removed from humor. Others comic performers have tried it — Jim Carrey bent over backwards pursuing an Oscar this way — but perhaps none, save Robin Williams, have been as skilled as Carell is. Last Flag Flying is his best performance to date.
More vitally, though, it is a distillation of difficult feelings and, yes, a distinctly American movie. It is remarkable that a movie about two bygone time periods should so finely reflect the national zeitgeist in another time of turmoil.
Or, perhaps, there’s something sadly eternal about these questions. Different generations; same regrets.
My Rating: 10/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark