FILM REVIEW: Last Flag Flying

Written by Gaden Sousa.

This time I want to talk about a film that barely anyone saw. Especially here in Australia. The film is Last Flag Flying by Richard Linklater.

The film follows three men: Sal (Bryan Cranston), Richard (Laurence Fishburne), and Doc (Steve Carrell). All three are past US navy men, they all fought in Vietnam. Doc’s son is part of the navy and dies in service of his country as part of the Iraq War. Doc then tracks down his two old navy buddies to help bury his son. This isn’t the kind of film I usually watch. I’m not really up to date on the politics behind the Iraq War or just politics in general. The reason I watched this film and you should too is because of the creative team and the emotion that’s poured all over it.

Linklater is probably best known for Boyhood (a film I adore), Waking Life, and his Before trilogy. His films are mostly about people being people. He takes an extremely human approach to filmmaking. They’re not really ever ‘about’ anything. They’re about human beings existing and dealing with the world and what happens to them.

So, if Linklater’s films are fundamentally about people, you’d better like the people in Last Flag Flying, right? Luckily enough, the three actors chosen to play the three very distinct characters are all exceptional. Steve Carell is very muted, his bombastic and crazy side from 40-Year-Old Virgin completely pulled back and restrained. Carell’s character serves as the emotional core of the film. To keep grounding us and reminding us that fundamentally the film is about loss. Cranston (who let’s all just admit is one of the best actors in the world and if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad yet, what are you doing?) plays the fun, loose-lipped, charismatic but flawed Sal who gives the film most of its moments of levity. Finally, Fishburne’s Richard is a Reverend and serves as a more spiritual counterpoint to Sal’s defeated standing point on life.

There are three great, very well defined, characters. They all have a mission, get Doc’s boy to his funeral that he deserves. And what do we spend most of the movie doing? Watching them all talk. I mean it. This film is from start to finish just people talking. We open in a bar, they talk. We drive to a house, they talk while they drive. We get to the house, they talk some more. On and on. Just talking, talking, and more talking. Yet, somehow, Linklater never loses us. He uses the camera cleverly, with push-ins and crane movements to give the scenes energy. To add to this, the dialogue is fascinating, it’s all filled with subtext and there is a shared history between these three men that is mostly only alluded to. Linklater lets us do most of the work in figuring out what these characters mean to each other.

I’m not going to tell you about the various twists and turns the movie takes (and there are a few, believe it or not). What I will tell you is that I didn’t really expect much from this film. I expected to be entertained and laugh a little, maybe. And those things happened. But, in watching the film, I found that it had a lot to say. The film is about loss and what it is like to lose someone you love. About how when we are alone we have to find our true friends. About how we can’t really go things alone. Or how we shouldn’t.

The film is also a fascinating meditation on the meaninglessness of war. About the lies we tell ourselves in times of war. How we justify the things we do. About how we lie to each other. The film takes shape as a reflection on the human condition and the truths and lies that we need to know and not know. The film asks the questions: What will make us feel whole? Do you need to know the truth? Or will a lie serve you better?

After seeing Last Flag Flying, in-between screenings of films like Avengers and Deadpool 2, it is refreshing. It is a quiet film that was barely noticed by anyone. By the Academy or the cinephiles or the general public. But it is really good. It is emotional and funny. It has some of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. Basically, it’s just nice to watch. So, if you’re looking for something fun. Something that will make you think a bit and feel a lot. Something that is just people talking and being humans with each other. You can’t do much better than this.

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