8/10 In 2003, the Bush administration, political pundits and the constant fear of terrorism, which still had that new-car smell, created an atmosphere in which supporting soldiers and supporting the recent invasion of Iraq were one and the same, and god damn any American who didn’t.
In the 2017 film Last Flag Flying, set in December of that year, three veterans still scarred by their experience in Vietnam lambaste the government for sending a new generation of soldiers to die in what they see as another unnecessary proxy war.
Doc Shepherd (Steve Carell) has lost his son in the Iraq invasion. He seeks out his closest friends from his time overseas 30 years prior, two-bit bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and reformed minister Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), the only human connections he has left. Having served in America’s first unpopular war and burying a casualty of its second, Shepherd is outraged and refuses to allow the military to have his son in death — not to bury him a hero, not even to help pay for his funeral. He, Nealon and Mueller go to Arlington to collect the body and bring it home to suburban New Hampshire.
Last Flag Flying comes out amidst a wave of cheesy movies about geriatrics reliving their glory days. Just Getting Started released last weekend to just $3.2 million, barely squeaking into the top 10 despite starring Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, already mainstays of the new exploitation genre along with Michael Caine and Christopher Walken. These movies invariably disappoint as they promise legendary acting, but bring in relatively unknown younger actors to do the brunt of the work, and the advertised stars are usually phoning it in anyway.
Last Flag Flying sets itself apart with a distinct lack of catheter jokes, employing actors who still have their dignity and the authorship of respected filmmaker Richard Linklater, and it is an extremely Linklater movie. It has his signature casual, slice-of-life attitude and realistic dialogue and serves as a period piece for a brief moment of time still in living memory, something many of his films aspire to. His breakout piece, Dazed and Confused, is considered one of the authoritative movies on suburban life in the ‘70s, but came out just 17 years after it is set.
Last Flag Flying comes out only 14 years after it is set, and it captures 2003 as it could only be seen in hindsight. The film largely concerns this tension between supporting the troops and supporting the war. It’s embodied directly in Shepherd’s quest to control his son’s burial, but the film is stuffed to the gills with conflicts that pit the fraternal elements of military service against bureaucratic ones. The lead characters were all dishonorably discharged, and Shepherd imprisoned, for an incident in Vietnam after their contracts were extended and have all understandably soured on the military as an institution, but are still very much brothers in arms and share a kinship with other soldiers. Cpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a current soldier who served with Shepherd’s son, is introduced and, in the film’s loudest scene, ordered to make sure he’s at least buried in his uniform, and with that, Larry Jr.’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps and the military’s institutional bond of fellowship with its members comes into play.
It’s a movie that will mean much more to veterans. It also skews distinctly toward an older audience as the leads struggle to recognize the world around them, as demonstrated by their trouble with the Internet and wireless phones and Nealon’s shock at learning Eminem is white.
On the strength of its superbly written and acted characters, Last Flag Flying takes a story about personal allegiance and final resting places, two things that can be very difficult to care about unless they concern you personally, and draw out their emotions to create a story anyone could relate to. It’s a fascinating and potentially very emotional experience — check it out if you get the chance.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.