NYFF Opening Night: LAST FLAG FLYING Soars With Intellect and Emotion
Any day now, the Internet will formally accept the term “Trump-era” movie, by which I mean, roughly, a film that analyzes or features any of the themes that pundits swirled around as explanation for the outcome of last year’s election. They abound now in drama and comedy form but the movie Last Flag Flying, which tonight opens the 55th New York Film Festival with an emotional punch, is perhaps the best of those type of films I have seen so far. In analyzing the anxieties and foibles of the aging middle class and touching upon themes as varied as war, government injustice, and the afterlife, it cements itself a modern study of (mostly white) male problems. And while the film is unlikely to have the political resonance that its clever auteur, Richard Linklater (Boyhood) intended, it is at the very least, like all of his works, an emotionally sincere and eminently believable talk-oriented drama.
The film begins with Doc Shepherd (Steve Carrell) approaching bartender Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) asking if Sal remembers him. It turns out that, thirty years prior they served in Nam together, ending in an unfortunate but unspecified incident that landed Doc in jail for two years. After a brief re-acquaintance, the two seek out Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a pastor in rural Virginia who was also a soldier during that war. Skip yet another few scenes of re-familiarization and it is revealed that Doc’s son, a Marine, was recently killed in action in Iraq, and Doc would like Sal and Mueller’s help in burying him.
What follows is a film pastiche of styles—a buddy road comedy, a midlife crisis drama, a self-inspecting tragedy all make appearances. It is unsettling at times and even heavy-handed, with Linklater’s signature heavy emphasis on prolonged dialogue seeming extra staged when the stakes are this high. And yet, somehow, perhaps through the magic of three fine performances, the best by Carrell, or through the high-flying mysticisms managing to land softly, Last Flag Flying acquits itself as a satisfying picture that really invites you in on an emotional level again, much like Linklater’s other work.
The characters at the center of this story are not riddled with anxieties that make them self-reflective or self-indulgent, like certain inhabitants of the Before series or of Boyhood do. Here, it is cynicism and past tragedy, a rude awakening to the cruel reality of war for the most part, that has brought them there.
With little in common now other than the shared (and mysteriously broached) past experiences in Southeast Asia, the three men embark on a familiar (to the movie world) but heartwarming adventure of meditation. Cranston’s Sal is now the lovable prankster, the joker who takes little seriously, talks with his mouth full, and prides himself in calling truth to power. He is in your face and Cranston bounces around the scene with his heavy diction and without ever moving, imperiling at times the relatability of the entire movie. Fishburne’s Mueller, by stark contrast, is the pensive, moody preacher, the one who has found good instead of the bottle, to ease his pain and assuage his guilt. Most mysterious is Doc, who sort of ambulates between the two larger personalities, pensive, rarely speaking up other than to reflect on the injustice he is experiencing at the loss of his son.
And it is not simply about the foregoing middle-aged woes that Sal and Mueller joust over. The two ping-pong between topics and disagreements, arguing about God, the existence of the after-life, and the emotion vs. intelligence approach to spiritual satisfaction. At the same time, while they disagree good-naturedly on these topics, they all agree that government lies and racial injustice is bad, that wars born for no purpose are destructive and that their time in the service was built on that deceit even though they love their country and are proud of being Marines.
So the topics get thick and not just because of their plentiful. Linklater is clearly trying to navigate a narrow stretch where he persistently (if quietly) criticizes our militaristic, bellicose culture, while exulting and praising soldiers, service, and the spirit de corps. Will it connect across the aisle as he clearly intends, by presenting Sal and Mueller as two competing alternatives? In the end, there is no question whose views Linklater aligns more with—Doc makes that clear eventually—and the subliminal message becomes too obvious to have that effect, I suspect.
It is odd, indeed, that a film that is billed as being about Doc’s mourning journey to bury his son, seems to be about so many other things unrelated to that challenge. The rewarding payoff of Last Flag Flying is how it connects the two, almost invisibly, thanks in part to Carrell’s extraordinarily moving last few minutes.
It is not that the movie is overly emotional—to the contrary, it is extremely restrained and even-keeled within its Cranston-induced excesses. But what it lacks in tear-jerking moments it makes up for in diversions into this or that philosophy, in droves. Last Flag Flying is a film with a lot to say about a lot of sayings, with a lot of observations about the state of our current war. The themes amble on at times—and the road trip itself seems unnecessarily stressed—but the conclusion makes it all worth it.
That you walk out of there pensive, reflective, and moved even though you did not feel it during the screening, is no surprise. This is Linklater, and that is his specialty. This is, moreover, the New York Film Festival, and, together with last year’s world premiere of the powerful documentary The 13th, this has become their style.
What will be surprising, however, is how much you may empathize and even come to close to identify with characters with which you likely have little to nothing in common. That, ultimately, is Linklater’s clear goal for “Trump-era” movies.
Last Flag Flying opens in theaters November 3, 2018.