“Last Flag Flying” premiered at the 55th New York Film Festival with all the fanfare and acclaim we’ve come to expect from this festival’s opening night feature. Five-time Oscar-nominated director/writer Richard Linklater has outdone himself yet again, and appears destined to earn more honors for this intimate but powerful emotional epic. Doing full justice to the director’s vision, the stellar cast of “Last Flag Flying” matches every subtle beat of their fine-tuned collaboration. Co-stars Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carrell, and Ms. Cicely Tyson have vaulted into position in this year’s awards conversation and should not be underestimated. While kept under tight wraps for months, now we understand why the New York Film Festival chose to give its opening spot to this brilliant soul-stirring film.
Cranston, inarguably considered one of America’s finest actors, more than fulfills this distinction with a tremendous tour-de-force performance as the brash, foul-mouthed Vietnam vet Sal Nealon, a bearded, gin-soaked bartender in Norfolk, Virginia, who’s found refuge in the back of beyond, if there ever was one.
In wanders a morose Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), as quiet as the dormouse in “Alice in Wonderland” to Cranston’s more-than-Mad Hatter. Doc’s demeanor is numb for a tragic reason. He’s just received news that his beloved son, a marine, has been killed in Iraq. The year is 2003 and it always seems to be winter as “Last Flag Flying” unfurls its tragic tale of a father’s loss, and his self-assigned mission to do the right thing by the heroic son he’s lost.
Questions roil through his mind, ranging from unexplained to unanswerable. “How did he die?” “Why did he die?” “Was winning this war worth the life of my son?” These torments haunt Doc like distant storm clouds on the shattered face of this good-hearted but normally undemonstrative father. Linklater’s and Darryl Ponicsan’s superb, understated screenplay articulate each brutal phase of grief to be dealt with in this unimaginable situation.
If the name Darryl Ponicsan pings distant memories of our own, it’s because his novels and screenplays have lit previous awards seasons, and therein lies one of the keys to illuminating Last Flag Flying. 44 years ago, Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail was adapted by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby. Roles were re-tailored for Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and then-23-year-old Randy Quaid. Nicholson won Best Actor at Cannes in 1974 and the film garnered Oscar nominations for Nicholson and Quaid. Another Ponicsan novel “Cinderella Liberty” was written and adapted for another yet another Oscar-nominated film the same year. Think about that. Two Ponicsan novels adapted the same year, both nominated for 3 Oscars apiece.
Flash forward to 2005, when Ponicsan decides to write another novel to revisit the three Vietnam vets who made him famous 30 years earlier. Yes, as you’ve no doubt read or now guessed, Last Flag Flying is a sequel to The Last Detail. Although the names of the three principle characters have changed, and some circumstances have shifted, their relationships gain greater depth if you’re familiar with their original iterations.
If the dark themes laced with even darker humor feels familiar then that’s why. As Nicholson did in the 1970s, now Cranston’s Sal injects laughs in the most unexpected places. This man never knows when to shut up, and we really wouldn’t want him to. To pull off a obnoxious character like Sal and still makes him likeable is a challenge that calls for a great actor, and Cranston is quick to answer that call. More than a mouthy spark-plug, he’s a virtual dervish of explosive fireworks. It’s an actor’s dream role and, ever on the verge of erupting, Cranston makes the most of every opportunity with this over-the-top performance. He’s unbelievably entertaining to watch.
Carell’s Doc had first encountered Cranston’s Sal 30 years earlier during the dismal, demoralizing end of the Vietnam era. They had collided in a very bad way back then, and things have not improved very much in the intervening years. Doc served prison time for something never made clear, and Sal had his own guilty actions to answer for. One thing’s for sure, they both know a lot more about each other than they want to talk about. Upon learning of his son’s death, not knowing where else to turn, Doc seeks out Sal “on the Internet!” and convinces him to rope in another reluctant compadre from their shared Vietnam past — “Mueller the Mauler” (Laurence Fishburne). Mueller is now the Reverend Richard Mueller, a former party animal in his younger years who has completely changed his ways and become a sober, dedicated minister.
Fishburne, always great, here takes on one of the prime role of his career, and the film veers into new heights of greatness on the strength of his performance. The sedate dignity of this married, well-settled man of God is wonderfully underplayed until it abruptly ignites like a blaze from hard seasoned firewood when Cranston’s Sal finds ways to push his religious buttons.
Watching Cranston, Fishburne and Carell bounce off one another is akin to sinfully gorging on a feast served on a pinball machine. Young J. Quinton Johnson gets to go toe-to-toe with these three living legends as the young Marine assigned to help return his slain buddy’s body to New Hampshire, where Doc wants his son to be interred. The grieving father has passed on Arlington National Cemetery as a burial site, because he doesn’t believe in either one of the wars that he or his son got involved in. This is one of many political connections the film makes to today’s precarious crises, as foolhardy military disasters are escalated by reckless men with other men’s sons.
The conclusion of last Flag Flying will be shocking to some. But it needs to be. This a deeply heartfelt journey, a fine tribute to its groundbreaking Seventies predecessor, a film whose thought-provoking meaning and message represent a passionate effort from all concerned.
I can’t end without mentioning a brief but powerful scene in which a lady named Cicely Tyson makes an unexpected cameo appearance. As a grieving Vietnam vet’s mother, she just about steals the film out from under all three of these aggressive alpha males. Ms. Tyson’s scenes are so heart-rending, we can almost feel the strength of her gravitational force shifting the orbit of the men’s trajectory to their proper alignment.
You’ll enter “Last Flag Flying” anticipating how Cranston, Carell and Fishburne will go about realigning the echoes of Nicholson, Quaid and Young, and you will not be disappointed, but you’ll leave the theater equally shaken by Tyson, whose own first and only Oscar nomination for Sounder came in 1973, a year before The Last Detail was brought to the screen. All these years later she’s as radiant as ever, superb in a role that may garner a Supporting Actress nomination in the bargain. At the age of 92, her historic life and career span more wars, more grief than any of us want to imagine, and she’s given us more warmth, more joy than many of us probably deserve.