With its well-drawn characters and mood of quiet restraint, “Last Flag Flying” touches the heart as it tells the story of a grieving father taking his son, killed in the Iraq war, home for burial. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
The most powerful image in “Last Flag Flying” is a man, a father, sitting on a folding chair beside a casket in the featureless white-painted interior of a warehouse building. The casket contains the body of his son, home from war.
He’s insisted on having the casket opened so he can see his son for the last time. And now, having seen the terrible damage war has done, he sits silent, head bowed.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Last Flag Flying,’ with Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez. Directed by Richard Linklater, from a screenplay by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on a novel by Ponicsan. 124 minutes. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references. Several theaters.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) keeps the camera at a far distance, as though not wishing to intrude on the man with a close-up. The silence of the moment is all-engulfing. There are no words to express the father’s grief.
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At the very end of the picture, there the father sits on the back porch of his home, reading his son’s final letter — the one written by men and women at war, to be opened by loved ones in the event of their death. It is a moving testament of love for the father and pride of the son in his service.
In between these bookend scenes is the story of the father, Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a Vietnam veteran (played by Steve Carell), and two of his Marine buddies from that conflict (Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne), accompanying the casket up the East Coast to Doc’s hometown in New Hampshire to lay his son to rest.
Laden with memories, they reconnect and take stock of where life has taken them in the three decades that separate Vietnam from Iraq, which is where Doc’s son was killed in 2003.
Fishburne’s character, Richard Mueller, is a preacher, having found God after Vietnam. Cranston’s, named Sal Nealon, is an outspoken alcoholic with a cynical take on life who’s skeptical of Mueller’s conversion to the straight and narrow. Doc is so self-effacing he practically fades from view for long stretches. Accompanied by a young Marine, Charlie Washington (Quinton Johnson), who was the best friend of Doc’s slain son, they weigh the costs of war and the lies told by higher-ups who send the troops to fight.
Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Darryl Ponicsan, draws affecting performances from his cast, with Cranston giving the picture great jolts of energy with his boisterous work.
With its well-drawn characters (a Linklater trademark) and mood of quiet restraint, “Last Flag Flying” touches the heart at a deep level.