It’s a pleasure to watch Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne bring their disparate characters to life in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an actor’s vehicle if there ever was one. The year is 2003: George W. Bush is in the White House, the U.S. has invaded Iraq, and mobile phones are all the rage. But for three Vietnam vets who haven’t seen each other in decades, life has taken them on widely divergent paths. Cranston is a cocky wiseguy who owns a rundown bar in Norfolk, Virginia. Fishburne has become a pastor at a Southern church, with a loving and supportive wife. Carell has the saddest story to tell: his wife died of cancer not long ago and his son has just been killed in action overseas. This is what brings him to Cranston’s bar and sparks a reunion with their fellow soldier-turned-priest. Carell needs his buddies’ moral support to go through the pain of burying his boy.
Bit by bit we learn the trio’s backstories as they embark on an unexpected road trip. Cranston has always been a pugnacious guy who drinks too much and rebels against authority. Fishburne shared many of the same qualities before turning to Jesus. But apparently they were all up to no good in the jungles of Vietnam, and Carell took the fall when they got caught. For him, the past is over and done with. He’s trying to deal with the grief of the present, and he has no one to turn to but his Marine pals of long ago.
It’s no coincidence that Last Flag Flying is based on a book by the same man who wrote The Last Detail, Darryl Ponicsan, who adapted the screenplay with director Linklater. As in that memorable 1973 movie, three military men share a bond of comradeship that could only exist among servicemen. This time around, the characters are older and their days of mischief and rebellion are over… or so it would seem. Their reunion inspires a certain degree of hell-raising and an effort to put a cap on some unfinished business.
Cranston has the showiest part and makes the most of it, but his braggadocio never seems false or contrived. Fishburne projects dignity and rectitude but isn’t afraid to laugh over old times with his comrades. Carell gives the subtlest performance, but by now we shouldn’t be surprised by his chops as an actor. The man he plays has endured untold pain and heartache, but he keeps his emotions under wraps: you see it all in his eyes.
Last Flag Flying is a simple film, perhaps deceptively simple; by the final scene we feel like we’ve lived with these characters through a transformative experience. That’s what makes the quiet finale so moving. Richard Linklater may be known for his vivid portraits of youth, but here he tackles an equally daunting subject with considerable success: manhood.