Last Flag Flying: Half-Mast, by Jim Rohner
Grief manifests itself in many, often unpredictable, ways. Human beings are complex algorithms, the sum of multiple emotional, social, and psychological factors that can confound even the source when the response to death is anger or numbness or tranquility or any number of emotions other than paralyzing sadness. The absence of consistency within the complicated human machine is acceptable, understandable, and relatable.
It’s a different story when it comes to movies in which a lack of emotional consistency or reason can often lead to a frustrating viewing experience. While art entails that there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a single inherent meaning or interpretation to a piece, there is something to be said about a film that has a message, a direction, or a statement that, effectively told or not, can elicit a response or reaction. Audiences, after all, don’t see films in order to watch reality, but to watch a comment on it. With the only guarantee that life gives us being inconsistency, there’s something both comforting and admirable about placing your attention and emotion in the hands of a filmmaker whose vision and direction is so confident and clear.
That’s what makes Last Flag Flying so frustrating. Co-written and directed by Richard Linklater, whose Boyhood was so overarching and innovative that it landed awards and accolades from just about every critics and awards group that matters, Last Flag Flying is an intimate and emotional look at three old war veterans, former Marines Sal Nealson (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), who are reunited decades after the Vietnam War due to Doc’s unexpected arrival back into the lives of his former two war buddies. Doc, whose wife had passed away years before to cancer, has recently been informed of the death of his enlisted son, and seeks out the only two people who had been in his life that might appreciate both the gravity of the loss and the honor in bringing the boy back home to be buried.
The decades have taken the men’s lives into different directions, of course: Mueller’s inherent leadership was usurped by the Lord and used for the priesthood; Nealson’s pride and swagger has withered to lectures and opinions spouted from behind the spouts in a dive bar; and Doc’s modesty has seen him devote his entire life to working for the Navy. It’s his devotion that becomes tested and called into question when it’s revealed by his son’s best friend and former partner in Iraq that the story the U.S. government is giving him about his son’s death – that he died honorably serving his country in battle (or some boilerplate PR propaganda) – isn’t quite accurate. Nevertheless, if films about war have taught us anything, it’s that the bonds formed in battle are never broken, and no matter what external or internal forces may be working against them, Mueller and Nealson are going to do whatever it takes to get Doc’s son home.
No matter what generation of which we find ourselves a part, the war films we watch all seem to generally hit upon the same beats. Be it Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, or even All Quiet on the Western Front, you’ll generally be finding a message to the tune of something like “war is hell” or “war forms bonds of brotherhood” or “the government has lied to us” and so on and so forth. When a film chooses to tackle one of those grandiose theses, every element of its construction from its dialogue to its cinematography to its soundtrack can join together in support of this vision that the director has laid out for his or her film. Linklater gets into trouble by generally not seeming to have one theme or viewpoint that he particularly wants to highlight above others and Last Flag Flying shifts from one theme to the next, subsequently meandering quietly to a finish that brings resolution for its characters, but not necessarily satisfaction to its viewers.
It’s perhaps refreshing in this politically cynical and divisive day and age to engage with a film that is not primarily concerned with either condemnation or idolization of war, the government, or the military but with Last Flag Flying, it seems that Linklater is playing it safe, keeping things apolitical at the cost of deep emotional investment in any one viewpoint. Last Flag Flying touches upon the bonds of brotherhood formed in war, the disillusionment of serving an unappreciative government, and the potentially fascinating question of whether the honorable ends justify the dishonorable mean, but never delves too deeply into any of them to unearth anything of profundity or resonance. The most cardinal sin of the film’s meandering nature might be the failed attempt to make a villain of Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez), whose one-dimensional patriotism sets him up as an inflexible dogmatic juxtaposition to our evolving protagonist but whose bluster never amounts to anything more than an afterthought.
Perhaps trying to compensate, we get borderline caricature performances from both Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, who seem to be in a sparring match over who can out bravado the other. While it seems pretty clear that they both enjoy chewing the scenery (Cranston especially), their bluster seems to drown out the muted performance from Steve Carell, who’s welcomingly swung the pendulum in the opposite direction from when he swung for the fences in The Big Short. It’s a bit ironic that flanked by two dramatic Oscar nominees, it’s the former comedian that steals the show.
But even the hot and cold nature of the performances just hearkens back to the film’s inability to commit to consistency one way or the other. Perhaps it says something tragic about 2017 (or me in 2017) that my response to a war film uninterested in further driving down the political wedge is a negative one. But in trying to please everybody, Linklater and company have pleased nobody.