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Film review: Linklater details war at home in ‘Last Flag Flying’

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Preston Barta

Last Flag Flying

Rated R, 124 minutes.

Opens Friday.

4 of 5 stars

Simplicity and complexity go hand-in-hand in Richard Linklater's films. His movies are not over-complicated or centered on convoluted plots, but instead driven by his intricate characters as they move from one moment to the next in situations that ring true. 

It doesn't matter if he sends us off with a group of high school kids causing mayhem on their last day of school, a Texas boy on his journey to adulthood, or a couple as they walk and talk in the City of Love. There are earnest fragments of every life on display in Linklater's works.

In Last Flag Flying (the spiritual successor to 1973's The Last Detail, starring Jack Nicholson), the story follows three Vietnam vets — Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell), Sal Nealon (an award-worthy Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — who reunite in 2003 after three decades for an untimely cause: To retrieve the body of Larry's son who died in action during the Iraq War. But what Linklater notes between the tangents of the film's story are the harsh realities that grieving military families face and how faint the colors of the American flag can be.

From left: Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in a scene from "Last Flag Flying." AP
From left: Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in a scene from "Last Flag Flying." 
AP

On the surface, the film doesn't seem to fit in Linklater's catalog — it's based on a novel written by Darryl Ponicsan. Linklater is perhaps best known for capturing stories of youth (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!!, to name a few) that are fictionalized extensions of his life and feelings about humanity. In Last Flag Flying, however, the free-spirited Texas-based filmmaker instead partnered with Ponicsan to co-write this film adaptation.

"I read [Ponicsan's 2005 novel] shortly after it released and became obsessed with the characters. I thought this would be my kind of war movie," Linklater said before the film's regional premiere in Austin last month. "The characters are different from a lot of the ones I've done. They are men who are reflecting on a period in their life 30-plus years ago. It has a rearview mirror aspect to it, but it couldn't be any more in the present tense of what's falling on them and what they're trying to do. It's pretty harrowing."

There are plenty of movies out there about the U.S. military and government covering up what they believe will diminish the American way. But as Linklater details in his exceptional portrait of military life and middle age, sometimes the most unbearable parts of a story are true, while the seemingly normal ones are not.

Left to right: Bryan Cranston as "Sal," Laurence Fishburne as "Mueller" and Steve Carell as "Doc" in "Last Flag Flying." Lionsgate
Left to right: Bryan Cranston as "Sal," Laurence Fishburne as "Mueller" and Steve Carell as "Doc" in "Last Flag Flying." 
Lionsgate

"This is a really politically charged topic we explore in the film, as it should be," Linklater said. "When you start talking about issues of war, sending troops into battle and the real circumstances of combat deaths, we all get to have an opinion. The situation demands an opinion."

To Linklater, Last Flag Flying represents his own ambiguous feelings and the love-and-hate relationship of Americans and the American institution.

"It's in the air now: Are you disrespecting the flag? Are you a patriot? Instead of mouthing off and accusing someone of not being a patriot and challenging their motives, why not talk to someone about their thinking before judging them from afar," Linklater asked.

The film is largely about belief and notions of truth. As Linklater coined, "truth is a very blunt instrument." This idea is illustrated through Cranston's character, Sal, who often rebels against authority. Like his two war buddies, Sal's mind dwells on an action involving the death of a mutual friend from their days fighting in Vietnam.

"There's a moment in the film where the guys decide to visit the mother (Cicely Tyson) of their departed friend, and Sal learns that maybe telling someone the absolute, unvarnished truth is not the best course of action, while earlier in the film with Larry and his son he felt otherwise. There are little lies, and then there are big lies. Why the country goes to war in the first place, that can be a big lie."

Often families of fallen soldiers are told their loved ones died in combat, were heroes and saved many lives. But as the film informs, that's not always the case.

"To move as a society we need to agree on stories that are often kind of mythological. We all have our own little stories we live by that are not 100 percent truthful but are important. It's a self-medicating experience," Linklater said.

Last Flag Flying itself is a self-medicating experience to anyone who's faced adversity. Though the adventure these characters go on may seem like a one-way trip to misery, Linklater crafts his movies like he's documenting real life, where moments of sadness are often best leavened with laughter. It's an honest and touching film that equally pulls at your heartstrings as much as it splits your sides.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.