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Linklater’s ‘Flag’ is worth saluting

November 16, 2017

Richard Linklater has long had an interest in the travails of young suburban men lurching through life’s changes.

From “Slacker” to “Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood” to “Everybody Wants Some,” he has been their chronicler, if not their cheerleader.

With “Last Flag Flying,” the 57-year-old director and Houston native trades “Boyhood” for manhood, painting a well-observed portrait of middle-aged Vietnam vets in the throes of an emotional crisis sparked by the death of one of their sons in the Iraq War. While conventional in execution and its underlying anti-war/pro-soldier sentiments, “Flag” nevertheless is buttressed by a warm humanity and stirring performances from Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and, especially, Steve Carell.

Doc (Carell) shows up as just another stranger on a stool in need of a drink in a rundown bar owned by Sal (Cranston) in the military town of Norfolk, Va. At first, Sal doesn’t place Doc as his old running buddy from their days in the Marines but, after a burst of recognition, comes the real reason Doc has shown up unannounced. His son is due to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and he needs the support of his old military friends - Sal and Richard Mueller (Fishburne), a man who has gone from partier to pastor - to get through it.

But there’s a hitch in the plans. They discover that the official reason for the death of Doc’s son is not quite accurate. In a fit of anger, Doc decides to transport the body back to his hometown in Maine for burial.

What follows is a road-trip and buddy movie, with much of the joshing and joking those terms imply - such as Sal unable to get over the fact that Richard is now settled and saintly. But the ribbing is enveloped in sadness, bitterness and grief as well as a renewed sense of purpose, not just for Doc’s son but for their own lives and the men they used to be.

Based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who co-wrote this script with Linklater), “Last Flag Flying” is a sort-of sequel to “The Last Detail,” the ribald 1973 Hal Ashby film starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young that was also lifted from a Ponicsan book. In that film, a sailor is being transported to prison by two other sailors and their trip doesn’t quite go as planned. Those three have grown into the characters from “Last Flag Flying,” though their names have been changed slightly and they are now Marines.

The alterations are an indication that viewers need not have either read or seen “The Last Detail” to fully appreciate “Last Flag Flying” and the connections it makes between Vietnam and Iraq, adulthood and aging, and the bonds of battle and family.

While Cranston has the showier role as the gruff, crusty Sal and Fishburne is solid as usual, it’s Carell, in a wonderfully understated performance, who carries the film on his slumped shoulders.

Mercifully, “Last Flag Flying” doesn’t sink into mawkishness, and while it doesn’t have much new to say about war and its ramifications, or specifically this country’s long involvement in Iraq, it says it with heart and honesty.