LAST FLAG FLYING
Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 120 minutes
Mostlyindies’ grading: A+
Opening night at the 55th New York Film Festival is such a wonderful, fun-filled event. I’ve been going now five years now, and I love how every time it seems as though it was the first — you’re surrounded by men and women of all walks of life, some are in the arts, some are patrons, some just movie buffs like you or me who just want to experience the screening of a future release before hand and sit there, amazed, at the artistry and performances involved.
I was a little surprised when Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying was announced as the film that would open the festival; I knew nothing about it, but I thought, “I’m not too sure this is the type of movie that should be shown on opening night; it seems like it would belong elsewhere.” How wrong I was; from the moment that the film proper begins and focuses on the quiet figure of Steve Carell as he stands in front of a mostly empty bar somewhere in Norfolk, Virginia, I knew I was in for something truly remarkable.
Carell is Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, a mild mannered former Marine living in New Hampshire who’s come to Virginia at the end of 2003 to visit his ex-Marine buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who runs a drinking hole that’s gone to pot. Of course, a man like Shepherd wouldn’t just walk into a place like this for the hell of it, and soon the men are talking of times gone past. Shepherd asks Nealon to come with him to see another friend from their Marine days, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) who’s long left his military days behind and has become a pastor. Mueller is less than thrilled to see these two men show up on his church, but it’s a last minute revelation at dinner that Shepherd reveals his true motives for contacting his two former friends.
Shepherd’s son was killed in combat in Iraq (he’s also lost his wife to cancer), and needs their support in his time of need. Nealon is more than happy to escape his momentary boredom, but it takes a little convincing from Mueller’s wife for him to go on and ensure Shepherd’s son gets proper burial. So, a road trip ensues, landing them first in Arlington where the body has not yet arrived, then in Maryland where they get informed that Shepherd’s son did not die in heroic circumstances but the government and military still feel to bury him as a military war hero. It’s here where Shepherd, up to this moment as quiet as a mouse, takes his own stance to bury his son not in Arlington, VA, but in his own New Hampshire town, and not in his military uniform, but his graduation suit.
The story from here on takes a couple of turns before it arrives to its final destination, first involving an Nealon’s and Shepherd’s attempt to DHL the casket back up North that a hilarious left turn, the official trip on an Amtrak train in which the men, accompanied by Private Washington (J Quinton Johnson, holding his own with the older men), a former friend of Shepherd’s son who’s been tasked with escorting their safe arrival, and a pit-stop in New York City in which the men, previously unaware of the advances of technology, buy themselves cellphones, a sequence that again demonstrates how in command Linklater is with the handling of comedic dialogue as a pause before the final dramatic act that starts with a short visit to the mother of another soldier (played by Cicely Tyson in an affectionate short 5 – 10 minutes of screen time) to the end of their journey.
Now, the performances by the three leads here are by far some of the best I’ve seen in their careers. Cranston, the actor who gradually turned his mild mannered, bespectacled chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad into a demonic force of nature, gets the lion’s share of scenes and dialog as Nealon, a man who’s still got an unquenchable fire inside and doesn’t give a shit what you think of him. Fishburne is right on point as the Rev. Richard Mueller, once known as a total motherfucker who now would rather live in peace and provides the movie with much grounding.
However, it’s Carell, the quiet, almost childlike character at the center of the story, that I want to talk about. Walking into this movie, erase everything you’ve seen him in — the loud comedies, the creepy guy in Foxcatcher. He’s gone. Carell, playing a man who was dealt with a lousy deck of cards, who’s lost everything, is so, so still and dignified in the face of suffering, that even a gesture as a smile lights his entire face up. I’m even going to go out on a limb to compare him to Chaplin in the final scene of City Lights,, but imagine him doing this during the entire film, his ego completely removed, letting the other two men be the perfect counterpoints. That, my friends, is acting.
Last Flag Flying opens in theatres November 3.