Here is an observant drama about the generational divide and about how there might not be much of one within certain cycles of life. The three men are veterans of the Vietnam War, and they have come together to bury a soldier who was killed in action in Iraq. Just as none of them really understood why they were sent to a jungle, they don't understand why the soldiers of the present (which, in this film, is 2003) are being sent to a desert. The story they have been told is one of heroism, but is that even true? This is a film that offers no easy answers to such a question.
Co-writer/director Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying (co-adapted with Darryl Poniscan from his novel) is more about the search for those answers, which can be every bit as daunting and uneasy as finding them. If the fallen soldier was a hero, is that any form of solace for the man among the three on this journey who was once his father? If he was not a hero - namely, without giving away anything specific about the details of the young man's death, if the incident was not a specific act of heroism - what does that say about a system of reassurance within the military that drives them to lie to grieving parents about the nature of their loved one's death in service to their country?
Doc (Steve Carell), a former member of the United States Navy, is the one whose son was killed. The story places him in the company of Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), two former Marines whose history with Doc is, to say the least, complicated. Doc spent some time in the brig and lost his wife at the beginning of the year, Sal received a head injury that awarded him a metal plate in his skull and a medical discharge with 100% disability (He now owns a bar-and-grill that barely functions as a bar and no longer makes burgers), and Mueller, once infamous for his potty mouth and sexual conquests, found religion and a quiet life as a priest in a small town. Doc employs them in the job of escorting the casket in which his son's body rests into a plot at Arlington.
The plot structure is pretty simple: It's a road trip shared by three men who, at first, can barely stand each other's presence. Following the deaths of his only family, Doc is an empty shell who reacts to almost nothing for a whole hour, which certainly comes to an end when he requests to see his son's body (The details of the death are as gruesome as they are cruel and random). Sal is cheerfully profane, his life of drudgery nursing cynical pragmatism that simply hides more cynical pragmatism. Mueller, having left the life of the wild and crazy guy years ago, is the group's moral buffer, but of course he slips back into his own cheerful profanity in a way that feels naturally, delicately funny.
Another traumatic event ties the shared past of these characters together, as they meet with a Marine liaison (played by J. Quinton Johnson) who was also Doc's son's best friend to ultimately escort the body somewhere that is not the Arlington cemetery, after they learn of the true nature of the boy's death. The trio of performances at the film's center are superb, particularly from Carell, whose Doc has a beaker of anger boiling beneath the surface but no interest in or strength to confront it. The final scene of Last Flag Flying offers a memento that might offer the first step to such closure. It doesn't come easily.
Steve Carell (Doc), Bryan Cranston (Sal), Laurence Fishburne (Mueller), J. Quinton Johnson (Washington), Deanna Reed-Foster (Ruth), Yul Vazquez (Colonel Wilits), Graham Wolfe (Redman), Cicely Tyson (Mrs. Hightower).
Directed by Richard Linklater and written by Linklater and Darryl Poniscan, based on the novel by Poniscan.
Rated R (language throughout including sexual references).
Released in select cities on November 3, 2017.