It’s comforting to know there are film directors who still value people and focus on the relationships they build with each other. Richard Linklater has always been about his characters – you can tell he loves presenting people in everyday situations. It’s been apparent as far back as his indie cult favorite Dazed and Confused and it’s still visible in his latest, Last Flag Flying.

Linklater’s latest is a quiet juggernaut that tackles friendship, patriotism, the cost of patriotism and the perceived uneven loyalty shared between the armed forces and its troops. It stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Lawrence Fishburne and is based on the novel of the same name, written by Darryl Ponicsan (Ponicsan and Linklater wrote the screenplay together). Ponicsan wrote Last Flag Flying as a sequel to one of his previous novels, 1970’s The Last Detail, and since that novel became a film in 1973 (which starred Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid) Last Flag Flyng is considered a quasi-sequel.

What’s important to take away from Flying is its honesty in the face of trauma. Carell plays “Doc” Shepherd, and his only child, Larry, was killed in action in Iraq. Shepherd seeks out two war buddies (whom he hasn’t seen or interacted with in decades) and asks them to come with him to bury his son. Cranston plays Sal Nealon, who runs a seedy bar in Norfolk, VA, and Richard Mueller (Fishburne) has found his calling as a minister. Through Larry’s tragic death the three are reunited, and their interaction with each other is candid, funny, emotional and somber.

Linklater’s latest is set in the early 2000’s (around the time Saddam Hussein was captured), just before cell phones became the norm. This is an actual subplot in Flying as Linklater has the trio hitting up an electronics store to purchase their first mobiles. In another scene, Sal and Mueller are complaining about the state of music – Sal abhors the music of the day and shrieks at the notion that R&B has devolved into hip-hop. He becomes even more astonished when Mueller points out that “Without Me,” the song that’s playing, is sung by Eminem, a white man. There’s even a subplot in which the three are mistaken for terrorists – something that seems out of place in the film but isn’t out of the question at the time.

These subplots don’t seem to fit in with the overall story, but they are essential in establishing the notion that Linklater likes to linger within little moments. Anything can happen at any time, and usually during one’s lifetime the journey is full of detours, both minor and major. It’s what makes Linklater’s latest relatable and honest, and is a memorable addition to his filmography.

Linklater often uses no-name actors to help tell his stories. It has paid off well for him because it allows audiences to see the character and not the actor, and thus his stories typically resonate with greater effect. But in casting Carell, Cranston and Fishburne he’s taking a risk, but he’s banking on the idea the three will bury themselves in their roles. For the most part they successfully do so, but there are times when it doesn’t work.

Knowing that, Cranston seemed to have the most trouble disappearing into his role. Sal is the loudmouth of the group and at times Cranston is chewing up scenery. You can tell his Sal has plenty of angst – he’s a tough talking alcoholic who’s also rebellious (and possibly the most regretful). Cranston is still excellent, but I’m not sure if he was trying to emulate Nicholson’s performance in The Last Detail or if he just saw this as an opportunity to go all out in a direction he’s not known for.

Fishburne‘s Mueller transformed himself – his dark past (Linklater cares to not explain any of his characters’ pasts – it’s only alluded to) led him to take more religious path. As a minister he’s channeling his passion in a more positive reaction. He’s fantastic, too, but personally both he and Cranston take a backseat to Carell’s performance.

Carell’s Doc is the quietest character, but he is also the most endearing. Doc is a man who’s merely a shell of himself. He’s still processing his son’s death, and he’s also questioning his government. He doesn’t trust them because he’s been lied to while he was serving, and Doc feels that they’re being less than truthful to him now in regards to his son’s death. Carell as Doc is subdued and hurt (also fragile, yet strong), and it may be his best performance to date.

Last Flag Flying is a road trip movie wherein its characters seek catharsis in light of personal tragedy. I admire it for being a war film that doesn’t actually depict war, and I also admire it for reflecting on a plethora of life situations without getting too preachy. It’s a film with characters in situations I could easily imagine my friends and I being in, and its scenes in which the three reminisce about their past exploits happen often when I get together with my friends and family. Last Flag Flying is a slice of life that ultimately asks us to be there for those we care about. Linklater is asking us to be decent humans.

4 stars out of 5

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