LAST FLAG FLYING Review
Director: Richard Linklater
I have a litmus test for good filmmaking. It’s a general rule of thumb I like to use whenever I begin to write a review. Had I shut my eyes during this film, would I have missed anything? You see, great films demand eyesight; it’s the unquestionable truth of cinema. Whether a silent film or early aughts mumblecore, great films from each of these respective extremes work best when their characters undergo visual change. With that being said, LAST FLAG FLYING does not pass my litmus test. In fact, it kind of crash lands, proving that despite assembling a killer ensemble in order to capture American pride, Richard Linklater is fumbling to reignite the spark that made the Before trilogy his magnum opus.
It’s December of 2003. Saddam Hussein has just been captured, cell phones are the hot new craze, and America is undergoing a xenophobic plague. Steve Carell, no longer a stranger to the dramatic scene, plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a lowly Vietnam veteran on the search for two long lost squad mates that will help him bury his son, a young Marine who was killed in the line of duty. One of these men is now a pastor: having left his sordid fate behind, he has committed his life to God. The other, a cynical alcoholic, operates a rundown bar all on his lonesome. I’m not going to say that Linklater didn’t watch a ‘90s cartoon when he wrote LAST FLAG FLYING, but the devil-and-angel-on-your-shoulder is the entire crux of his 124-minute journey.
Let’s be real, it could also be a mob film. Frankly, I’d welcome it.
That isn’t to say that LAST FLAG FLYING is bad, it’s just frustratingly derivative. Linklater really strikes gold whenever he dips his toes into post-9/11 angst. The same thing goes for his pursuit of pride amidst the cynicism of cyclical warfare. But as a fraternal road trip film, LAST FLAG FLYING is squarely Linklater’s laziest, lowbrow outing in years. The key cast is one larger than any of the Before films, and yet it feels decisively smaller; each character a carbon cutout, representing a flat, tired facet of veteran culture. Where DAZED AND CONFUSED and last year’s EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! boast a milieu and a crowd that infused their films with a welcome sense of momentum, elevating even the most simple conversation into a lived-in, three-dimensional space, most of LAST FLAG FLYING relegates itself to dull in-car chatter, bedside banter, and dinner table talk.
How this fits into Linklater’s oeuvre is rather complicated. On one hand, this is a rather sobering follow-up to the decadent fraternity of EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! On the other hand, its character writing can seriously falter, occasionally befalling a fate as trite as the worst parts of BOYHOOD. For a film that mostly involves road tripping a casket from A to B, it really doesn’t take any cues from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, or any other notable peers. It’s a film that, much like BERNIE, tries to shine a light on small-town America. Though admittedly less documentarian in approach, Linklater invites us to peer into the homes of citizens who lost everything in the name of God and country. It’s a novel political critique because it’s never inflammatory, but it’s also too tame to really leave much of an impression.
AUTO-FROWN, grow a mustache and you can play sad!
It’s hard to articulate why Linklater’s most recent outing feels so comparatively week to his other entries, especially because he’s always been a talk-heavy director. Had this been a directorial debut, I’d be a lot kinder, but Linklater really ought to challenge himself at this point. It’s not the talking that bothers me, it’s the willful refusal to incorporate any visual trademarks that help elevate the ultimate narrative. LAST FLAG FLYING might as well be a radio play. A touching drama that forgets the core purpose of the filmmaker’s most essential tool. When it clicks, Linklater hits some strong sentimental notes, but let’s be honest, the whole thing kind of writes itself. Of all weepy, tear-jerking, funeral films, a fraternal dadcore war vet drama is probably the easiest ticket to someone’s heartstrings. Steve Carell really carries much of the film with his quiet repose, but Bryan Cranston’s stereotypical drunkard and Laurence Fishbone’s even more stock pastor really set the bar a tick too low. I’d easily recommend LAST FLAG FLYING to sensitive dads far and wide, but that’s really not much of an endorsement. When all’s said and done, Linklater made something of a war film that’s a little too short on conflict.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend