Director Richard Linklater returns with another piece of uniquely American Cinema.
When watching the work of some directors, they almost have a certain flavor to them. When watching a Woody Allen film, for example, you’ve come to expect an entangling character driven piece dressed with witty, anxious, intellectual, and self deprecated humor. When watching a Steven Spielberg film, you expect phenomenal special effects and a classic Hollywood story. The reason for that is that those legendary directors have clearly ascended past the title of director and into a role more unique, that of an auteur. It’s a word that should be used sparingly and only when an artist’s work is uniquely their own. When watching a Linklater film, there’s no question whose workmanship you’re seeing on screen. With Last Flag Flying, Linklater further cements his status as an auteur and a pioneer of American cinema with another unique film that tells a uniquely American story.
The film follows three old friends, played by an amazing trio of Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne, who served together in the Vietnam War. After decades of being out of touch, the three are brought together with one final mission, to bury one of their sons who died fighting as a Marine. What it really turns out to be is one big journey movie and I don’t think there’s anything that screams American cinema more than a road trip film. The plot may be simple at it’s core, but it moves along relatively well and unpredictably for the most part. Throughout the film, Cranston and Fishburne have an almost magnetic chemistry and relationship that comes off beautiful in a Linklater style of movie, where everything is heavily dialogue driven. With the two of them butting heads as the proverbial good and evil, Steve Carell manages to come off as the perfect quiet outsider type to counter their ambient energies. Their dynamic is great, along with their performances.
Everything you can expect of a Linklater film is here, from his social commentary through the characters’ unique viewpoint to the long walk and talk scenes which add to his films’ very natural pacing. In addition to that, the mix of simple humor and gripping drama is still there. Linklater seems to be one of the most skilled filmmakers at cataloguing and depicting the human experience, from Boyhood, which magnificently recanted what it meant to grow up in America, to the Before trilogy that breathtakingly captured the thrills, fears, and mundaneness of romance through the years, and so on. Each of his films highlight a slice or segment of American life. With a lot of coverage of life in its younger stage, he now seems to be moving more towards the other end of the spectrum in this film, depicting the struggles and testings that come with a long life, such as losing a child, the loss of a spouse, and the dreaded fact of aging in general.
However, despite this being a natural addition to what is so far a phenomenal body of work, I can’t praise it nearly as highly as his previous films. I can’t even laud it as altogether landmark or especially expository because he doesn’t bring anything much to the table that he hasn’t already shown in his previous work, aside from the different material. The humor often times falls short and the characters of the trio become more like black and white stereotypes than portraying something real with shades of grey. One thing that Linklater does so intricately illustrate is the conscience of Steve Carell’s character, with Cranston’s character oft times playing the devil on his right shoulder and Fishburne playing the angel on his left. The film is heavily predicated on Carell’s decisions, as his past decisions have led him to less than ideal places, but he’s learned to live with them. Now we get to see that decision making process of what’s the right and wrong thing to do in real time with Linklater gently suggesting that doing the right thing, isn’t always the right thing, and vice versa. This subtle nuance to his style of story telling was a refreshing addition to the plot and storytelling, but was one of the few improvements to his craft that could be seen.
While this may be far from Linklater’s best work, there’s still much to be appreciated in this film. Only Linklater will intentionally mimic real life in order to make the film seem more like real life and less like a movie, and that is something to be appreciated. To truly appreciate any Linklater film is to have lived through something similar to the subject matter or to be able to relate to it. If you can find a way to relate to the tragic premise, than this film will certainly make your day and expound your experience in a new light. Even if you’re a twenty something with no family in the military, then this film is still an interesting watch as any Linklater film is.
We screened the film at the 2017 New York Film Festival, where it had its world premiere and served at the fest’s opening night selection.