I imagine that too much of the dialogue surrounding Last Flag Flying, a film that tangentially concerns America’s role in the world, will be spent searching for a textual argument about Donald J. Trump’s America, but any amount would be too much, really. It’s probable that in some instances that search will overshadow the film itself, which will be unfortunate; Richard Linklater’s humorous, insightful, heartbreaking drama deserves appraisal independently of the internet opinion hellscape. And of course, it’s only too fitting that the film’s release should approach while simultaneously a pointed NFL civil rights protest has mutated into an inane national squabble over who owns the American flag’s meaning, and who owns patriotism. Whatever — we can’t have nice things.
Last Flag Flying is a nice thing. It follows Larry (called “Doc”), Sal, and Mueller, Vietnam War buddies who reunite after decades apart to help Doc (Steve Carrell) bury his son Larry, a marine who was killed in Afghanistan. (The film takes place in 2003, at the outset of the “War on Terror.”) The men make the a trip from Delaware to New Hampshire, traveling Amtrak with Larry’s government-issue casket, which in a bit of quotidian morbidity is packaged in a box labeled HEAD (where the deceased’s head is supposed to go). The casket, like their trip, is uncomfortably routine — we imagine these processes to be ritualistic and sacred, but Last Flag Flying frames Larry’s final trip as morbidly absurd, vulnerable to the same logistical hiccups as shipping any package.
Grim realism makes the trip alternatively heartfelt and hilarious, and together again the men confront the atrocities they witnessed in Vietnam — as well as the folly of America’s shiny new war — with a mixture of calcified anger and gallows humor.
Despite the subject matter, Last Flag Flying mostly refrains from political polemic, hardly even outlining condemnation of war itself. Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Doc voice their displeasure with the Bush administration, and bemoan the futility of the war they fought, but the film approaches violent conflict with dispassionate contempt, as no more than an inevitable bug of civilization, instead turning its gaze toward the human toll.
Still, it would be naive to brand the film apolitical, even if it isn’t benefitted by viewership through the prism of our current political climate. At a press screening after the New York Film Festival debut, Linklater addressed that dynamic, saying “There’s always an echo of the political [especially] right now, but we’re set in ’03, long before the politics of today, so that kind of frees [us] up.” Laurence Fishburne (Mueller in the film) went a step further, guessing that the film would have been unmakeable twelve years ago given the fraught politics of the time.
Those statements smack of both wishful thinking and determined defiance, as though the director and his actor could steer their film away from the toxicity of political discourse through sheer will. And it’s true that Last Flag Flying takes place in 2003, but while watching the film one thought never escaped my mind: this war is still happening.
The war of Doc, Sal, and Mueller ended decades ago, and has been largely codified, understood, and hermetically sealed in the history books and the American conscience. However, paternal banter between them and Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), Larry’s best friend in the Corps, bridges the gap between generations, drawing a parallel between Vietnam and The War on Terror. As the four men bitch about inept politicians and harsh environments, the elders approach the conversation from a healthy distance that isn’t afforded to Washington — after Larry is buried, Washington is due to return to the Middle East.
The fact of the ongoing conflict gives Last Flag Flying a sense proximity to current events, and with it an immediate, pressing sense of heartbreak. Linklater is right in that 2003 feels — especially now — like eons ago, but scenes of caskets arriving at air force bases, as well as Doc’s story of seeing Marine officers arrive at his house (above all, he remembers their spotless belt buckles) are all the more moving because those images are not sealed away in America’s history. They exist in the present, and likely the future. Despite that relevance, the mourning perspective of Last Flag Flying is timeless. A war movie completely devoid of period-specific battle heroics or tactical jargon, the film focuses without distraction on casualties and the people they leave behind — vestiges of every war ever fought.
Along their trip, the men settle back into their group dynamic, adopting a familiar rhythm that had been collecting dust in their time apart. The film strips back the present, revealing the effect Vietnam had on each man, and information slowly trickles about the shameful event that drew them together permanently. Sal and Mueller are polar opposite archetypes, a hard-drinking bar owner and a reserved man of God, respectively, but Doc has become something more nebulous: a civilian employee at a New Hampsire naval outpost, still beholden to the institution that marred his youth — and, we discover early, jailed him for crimes committed in the war. The complicity of Sal and Mueller (in his pre-church days known as “Mueller the Mauler”), who compelled the younger, shier Doc into their illicit activities, becomes one more wound for their trip to heal, alongside the death of Larry.
With Last Flag Flying, Linklater has crafted a road movie packaged as a war movie, and the connection between the three men deepens as they voyage north. Each actor demands your attention in revelatory moments: Sal, haranguing a Marine colonel over the actual circumstances of Larry’s death; Mueller, rhapsodizing about finding God through his wife; Doc when his emotions finally overflow in a volcano of laughter while the three reminisce about good ol’ days that weren’t so good.
As with much of Linklater’s filmography, Last Flag Flying unfolds at a contemplative pace, basking in extended conversations between Sal, Doc, and Mueller. The quiet of their moments on the road, in humming train cars and seedy motels, is offset by diversions that are either rambunctious (buying cell phones in New York City so they can maintain contact) or somber (visiting the mother of their fallen comrade in Boston).
Mood flips in the film, alternating between grave humor, warm sentimentality, and pure heartbreak, sometimes in a single scene. The gymnastic tone is never more necessary and masterfully rendered than when Doc receives his son’s casket at the Air Force base. Much of the movie hinges on the circumstances of Larry’s death, and the way that specificity affects Doc’s grief. Smart enough to understand the power of optics, the military in 2003 withheld images caskets from the evening news, and worked to frame casualties universally as acts of heroism. Last Flag Flying takes the opportunity to highlight this disingenuous posturing when Doc, unsatisfied by the wishful half-truths being forced upon Larry’s death, opts to bury his son in New Hampshire instead of Arlington National Cemetery — much to the Colonel’s disappointment. Doc’s disillusionment with the war is the closest the film veers toward commentary, but the question of Larry’s final resting place is more affecting as a facet of Doc’s internal grief than as a signifier of government untrustworthiness.
Which is what it means to say that Last Flag Flying is inherently political, but succeeds in illustrating the effect of loss on one man while eschewing the application of that loss to an entire country. Larry’s death, in Doc’s initial view, was a tragic waste, and yet the film isn’t as interested in Larry’s death as a symptom of United States interventionism or disingenuous foreign policy as much as it is interested in how Doc must process Larry’s death as the result of his son’s own choices, which were informed by altruistic intent.
The period-specific references, Sal’s wisecracks about war-mongering politicians, the question of whether the government is right to dishonestly represent Larry’s death — it all melts away in the film’s most personal moment, when Doc shares a letter with his friends (and us), asking Mueller and Sal to stand nearby while he read. The letter crystallizes Doc’s internal dialogue, and his ultimate decision for Larry’s burial. Last Flag Flying ultimately argues that the virtue (or lack thereof) of a specific war can be entirely unrelated to the individual cost of fighting, and that heroism lies in why a soldier leaves, instead of how they come back.