“Last Flag Flying”

 

            Where were the Vietnam War Vets 14 years ago?  What were they doing?  They would have been in their mid-fifties, that stark truth age where you look exactly like the cumulative effect of what you've done in your life up to that point.  And nobody looks at you and thinks they see their future.

            Larry “Doc”Shepherd (Steve Carell) walks into a bar and orders a beer.  It's a seedy place, that maybe once used to be livelier, but now there's just a drunk bartender and one patron on a barstool, mindlessly staring at the television screen.  The bartender, it turns out, is the owner, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston).  When “Doc” finally tells Sal who he is, an old buddy that used to serve in the same unit in 'Nam, Sal's face lights up, but there's something there besides the surprised laugh.  Turns out to be guilt.  It seems “Doc” took the rap for Sal and another buddy.  They were all dealing the morphine.  But it was “Doc” who was busted, and wound up in the brig. 

            “Doc” seems pretty subdued.  Painfully quiet.  And after a night of drinking together, he wakes up like a man on a mission.  He wants Sal to take a little car trip with him, and Sal hardly knows how to refuse.  Doc takes Sal to a church service.  The Reverend up there in the pulpit is none other than the other 'Nam buddy---Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne).  Over Sunday dinner at his home, they meet his lovely wife, Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), and it's then Doc drops the bombshell.  He wants his two old buddies to go with him to bury his son, who's just died in Iraq.  The body's being flown in for interment at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.  Sal is up for it; he's up for anything because he was bored to tears, anyway.  But Richard is more cautious and hesitant.  He's found religion now, and thought he had buried those dark old days when he was a carouser and a hedonist.  It's Ruth who shames him into agreeing to come along.

            What follows is a melancholy, bittersweet kind of road trip, interspersed with some awkward silences, some scatalogical musings, some emotional truth-telling, some irreligious diatribes, and a few unexpectedly hilarious moments.  Sal plays the lively, animated one, the irreverent cynic, and Richard is the dignified, mature gentleman, and Doc is the grief-stricken, morose widower, but all these actors are so first-rate that you get the feeling they could switch roles the next time, then switch again the next time, and we'd still be amazed at the depth of their range.

            Director Richard Linklater is a masterful mood changer.  And here he presents us with very memorably vulnerable characters parlayed by top-notch actors in their prime.  But people will stay away from this movie in droves, because they're afraid it will be depressing.  True, somber is going to be a prevailing mood, given the sad circumstances.  But this is a high-quality, close-encounter-of-the-emotional kind of film that will leave an impact long after the closing credits.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association