It is difficult to imagine a Linklater film that isn't some radical temporal experiment or structure-less existential rumination and that is by no means a bad thing. Richard Linklater's films have always struck a chord with an audience that was less Hollywood and more speculative, his stories progressing and themes being expressed not through plot but rather through ensemble conversations, the subjects of which vary so wildly that massive spreadsheets exist merely in an attempt to retain all the information. After Everybody Wants Some!!, his delightful spiritual successor to his breakthrough cult classic Dazed and Confused, Linklater offers another loosely-defined sequel in Last Flag Flying, only this time to the legendary Hal Ashby's 1973 Jack Nicholson-fueled classic The Last Detail. The names vary and so does the plot, but the characters are there and the counter-cultural ideals remain the same, albeit matured. However, fans of the director will understand that what Linklater's latest film features is one of the most shocking surprises of the year: a three-act structure!
Last Flag Flying stars Bryan Cranston (Sal Nealon), Steve Carrell (Larry 'Doc' Shepherd) and Laurence Fishburne (Mueller) who reunite decades after serving in Vietnam together to help Doc bury his son after he has been killed in combat in Iraq. What follows is a mixture between a road movie, a buddy-comedy, an introspective drama on aging and masculinity, and sociopolitical commentary that offer an uproar of laughs and tears alike whilst also maintaining the director's signature naturalistic tone. The film's three leads undoubtedly make for some of this year's most charming performances. One could argue that half of the actor's jobs have been done for them, with the characterization of The Last Detail to draw from. However, each actor so perfectly embodies the respective character traits of their predecessors whilst simultaneously adding several additional layers as a result of the years between. Bryan Cranston displays a phenomenal range, proving himself a worthy successor to Jack Nicholson, as he brilliantly captures his energy, vulgarity and humor without it ever feeling forced. Seeing Cranston (often typecast into more somber, middle-aged roles) as the bad boy of the trio is ultimately a refreshing presentation of his skill. Steve Carrell effectively transitions between his trademark goofiness and a grieving father, while Laurence Fishburne adds a great amount of depth to the original character of Otis Young's Mulhall, offering some of the film's most delightful moments when him and Cranston play off one another. One almost gets the sense that these actors each play two different characters, as all three prove to have a surface persona as well as an underlying struggle to release or overcome. When Fishburne in particular reverts to his pre-pastor self some of the film's best and funniest moments are had.
While the comedy excels at the hands of its actors (arguably the most conventionally funny Linklater film), it's political commentary also take an interesting stance; reflecting primarily left-wing ideologies but also displaying a great amount of respect for the troops. The portrait that Linklater paints is that of war veterans who, while in their younger years jumped at the chance to fight and die for their country, feel radically betrayed by the lies of their government and their purpose (or lack thereof) overseas. Last Flag Flying displays how while soldiers remain such a vital aspect of American identity, it is the soldiers themselves who feel alienated; for how can one trust his government when it has the power to order you to die? Having said that, while the film excellently establishes and solidly reinforces its political frustration and anti-establishment themes throughout, it is only the final few minutes that it begins to thematically fall apart. In fact, I would go so far as to say it feels like the ending of this film is taken from a different film entirely.
After a tumultuous journey to bring Doc's son's body home, with an insistence on burying him as a civilian, in civilian clothes, the trio suddenly reminisce over how great they looked in their Navy Blues back in the day, causing Doc to decide to bury him in uniform, like the military intended. This could have all been avoided however had J. Quinton Johnson's character (playing Larry Jr.'s best friend) had given Doc the death letter he wrote for him when he first saw him as opposed to the very end of the film, with specific instructions to bury him just as Doc coincidentally unknowingly orchestrated. It is both the sudden sight of Cranston and Fishburne's characters in uniform that feels so tonally jarring with anti-establishment narrative we were consistently given up until then; and the final voice-over of Larry Jr. reading his letter in which he states that he died doing what he loved felt so unbelievably Hollywood (I don't think I've ever heard a voice-over in a Linklater film) that it merely undermined the governmental frustration expressed throughout. Politics and honor aside, the fact remains that Doc lost his son for no good reason whatsoever, and to hear him say from beyond the grave that he was happy to die at the young age of 21 invokes a sense of patriotism totally inconsistent from the rest of the film.
Had it not been for the last 10 minutes, Last Flag Flying would have been a 10-star feature, as it is funny, heartwarming, and inspires such empathy for these characters as both humans and veterans alike. This is an immensely enjoyable feature that offers laughs, drama and effective sociopolitical commentary up until the ending, but is absolutely worth it nevertheless. Though most of Linklater's films are riddled with enough philosophical speculations and debates to awaken one's third eye, this one proves he can effectively tell a conventional story, and instead inspires a smile.