Films about the brotherhood of veterans have a built-in appeal. They are better still when they are smart here and there, sassy from time to time and contain some meaningful insights. That sums up “Last Flag Flying.” It’s not splashy, but it’s more than enough. It’s melancholy about what war does to men but never feels the need to cue sad, sentimental music.
It’s the story of a road trip by three aging Vietnam veterans — Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and the Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — reuniting in 2003. It’s directed with a sense of respect and shaggy humor by Richard Linklater. It’s not outspokenly antiwar, though it mourns the human costs of combat, including the emotional damages the men have not openly confronted until their unexpected reunion.
The story is loosely connected to the 1970s drama “The Last Detail,” which followed a pair of career sailors who decide to give a young enlisted petty thief a sense of what life outside the military is like before delivering him to an eight-year sentence in prison. This is a different sort of escort duty, arranged by the quiet Doc, who travels to Sal’s squalid bar in Norfolk, Va., and then to the Baptist church over which Richard presides.
The men have a shared, sometimes painful history that they prefer not to revisit. Instead, Sal, a taunting atheist, mocks former bad boy Richard’s evangelical awakening. Neither of them recalls much about forgettable Doc, nor cares about him hugely until he reveals why he wants their company for a few days.
His Marine son, Larry Jr., has just been killed in the beginning of the Iraq War. Doc needs their help to transport the coffin from Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base to New Hampshire, where Doc lives and his wife is buried, to place his son beside her. While it is within his rights to bypass the customary funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, the colonel handling its delivery responds with polite but strenuous objections to Doc’s plan.
Linklater follows the negotiations, logistics and teamwork required to transport the coffin to its final resting place with a simple focus on three days in three lives. It’s a story structure he handles well. Unspoken memories from the men’s war experiences rise into view. These are relatable men played by actors who are well cast. They don’t have especially strong chemistry together, which is an understated part of the story. It’s their experience together as brothers in arms that unites them here.
On their trip up the East Coast, the men are joined by a young Marine assigned to escort the body. The script’s biggest failing is in making him a close combat comrade of Larry Jr., conveniently capable of providing his own revelations about the officially declared heroism of his deceased fellow combatant. J. Quinton Johnson delivers a spot-on performance despite being saddled with a painfully misconceived role.
Most of the film, however, is handled with assurance. “Last Flag Flying” isn’t staunchly patriotic, carefully reconciling its admiration and distrust for people who hand out orders, or obey them, or ignore them. It shows us characters who grow slowly and realistically, not Hollywood-miraculously. It is shot in a tone of small-town believability, not appealing glamour.
Sometimes less is more.
‘Last Flag Flying’
Rated R for language, including some sexual references.