We live in a world of tragedy; it’s undeniable and yet we often turn our faces away, regardless. In his new film, “Last Flag Flying,” writer/director Richard Linklater looks familial and military tragedy plainly in the face without lamenting or glorifying.
Former Navy Corpsmen Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) seeks out two of his Vietnam war buddies, hoping that reviving their 30-year-old friendship will help him get through the experience of burying his son, 21-year-old Larry Jr., a Marine killed in action in the Middle East.
The movie is not anti-war, as you might expect it to be, but simply pro-human.
Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and Sal (Bryan Cranston) each represent one side of a generational gap – Mueller a wise old reverend and Sal a crude, alcoholic barkeep who never “got it together” after Vietnam – the same gap represented by Doc and his son. Mueller and Sal are the constant angel and devil on Doc’s shoulder. Their contradictions play off of each other throughout the film, but are visibly displayed early in the movie when Sal urges Doc to open his son’s coffin and Mueller warns that he’ll only regret it.
There are moments when the dialogue is too overt and the shot is too still for the awkwardness to go unnoticed, but these weaker moments are easily forgivable when followed by nuanced and subtle scenes so undeniably Linklater-esque. It’s pure human connection revealed in these layered scenes, thanks to the powerful performances from all three leading men and spectacular direction from Linklater.
Intense moments such as Doc opening his son’s coffin are told matter of factly. Placed in the background, he shakes and sobs as he looks at his faceless son, while Sal and Mueller joke about war wounds in the foreground – “Baghdad boil,” says Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), the young Marine tasked with putting Larry’s body to rest, in reference to the insect bite on his ear.
But, after the line between the generations has been successfully blurred by the restoration of the men’s youthful friendship – evident as all three men giggle as they use cellphones for the first time – Mueller and Sal nod solemnly in agreement: Doc needs to open a letter left behind by his son. Any differences between the men, the coarse boyishness of Sal and the philosophical nature of Mueller, are paled by their love for Doc, and his love for his son.
It’s absurd that we should bury this twenty-one year old man. It’s absurd, perhaps, that we should even call him a hero; in the end, his death is perhaps as inconsequential as a Baghdad boil. It’s absurd that we should be so sad, because before us are three middle aged veterans who, at heart, are the same as this lost young man.
Presenting these as facts in a simple, gray New England setting, Linklater makes us sob anyway, reminding us that even when a loss seems like it may not matter, there is always the love. The love we have for each other does matter and will never fade; prison, poverty, death, alcoholism and a thirty year separation cannot tear it down.
Written by Shelby Loebker.