If the bittersweet road movie “Last Flag Flying” proves one thing, it’s this: director Richard Linklater is at his best when he’s working with material that comes from a place of deep sincerity. Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, the author of the novel on which this film is based. The end result is a moving, deeply personal film that finds a delicate balance between sincere humor and raw drama in the context family, friendship, patriotism, and grief.
Set in 2003, the poignant story finds three former U.S. Marines thrust together after a tragedy. The recently widowed Doc Shepherd (Steve Carell) learns his 21 year old son has been killed in Iraq. Alone and desperate for emotional support, he sets off to find two of the men who served with him in Vietnam. Enter Sal (Bryan Cranston), an outspoken alcoholic barkeep, and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now a holy man. The trio embark on an impromptu road trip to pick up the body and transport it back to New Hampshire for the burial.
This has to be one of the most moving road trip films of the decade, and much of the credit lies with the superbly cast, gifted ensemble of actors. Although they’ve lost touch over the last thirty years, the three men reminisce about their service days and share laughter and tears, especially when they come to terms with past regret. The film’s look at the joys of human connection are touching, and it works because of the talented, casual, and genuine performances from the three leads.
Carell is devastating as a grieving father, a quietly restrained, understated performance that’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s one of the very best of his career. Ditto for Cranston. He peels back layer after layer of concrete nuance, unveiling a very complex character study when you stop to reflect upon what’s going on beneath the surface. Fishburne holds his own here too, his low-key, soft spoken preacher effective in its honesty. There’s an instant rapport that creates a potent connection; you’ll care deeply about these men.
The dramedy is a complete 180 from Linklater’s most recent work, one that harkens back to those personal stories of extraordinarily realistic humanism that he does best (the “Before” film series). It’s so beautifully directed that it’s shocking that only last year, his truly dreadful “Everybody Wants Some!!” clocked in at #3 on my list of the 10 Worst Movies of 2016.
It’s clear Linklater has a deep emotional connection with the source material, “Last Flag Flying” is a touching riff on friendship, loss, and bonding through grief. It’s incredibly sad, but it’s also achingly beautiful.