What does it mean to have served one’s country? Of course, you are recognized as a hero or heroine for
the selfless act of putting yourself at risk to protect those you love, and your homeland. However, what
about after the gunfire and battles have receded into the foggy memory of time and your life has returned to
normalcy, what does it mean to have served one’s country then? And not just immediately following a war, but for the rest of a veteran’s life. Last Flag Flying examines this question in one of the most emotional and comedic ways I have ever seen on film.
The last of our New York Film Festival 2017 coverage concludes with Last Flag Flying, the adaption of novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan. This was a prominent feature in the festival’s lineup, a big production brimming with distinguished actors that the press and industry in attendance were eager to view.
The narrative follows three long-lost friends and Vietnam War veterans: Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston),
Larry (Doc) Shepherd (Steve Carell), and Reverend Richard Muller (Laurence Fishburne.) In the early 2000’s Larry decides to seek out his old comrades from what seems like, to all three men, a lifetime ago. Presently in vastly different professions and circumstances, the trio reconnect over the sad news that Larry’s son has been killed while valiantly serving in Iraq. With the remains inbound to the UnitedStates, Larry requests that
his former servicemen accompany him to collect his son and help him lay the young man to rest. At first
Sal and Richard are apprehensive to embark on a road trip with a man that is effectively a stranger. However,
compassion wins out and the three vets hit the road.
This unconventional road trip sees the threesome re-discovering themselves, each other, and the definition of a war veteran. For instance, Richard Muller has changed significantly since his time in Vietnam, reborn as a man of God, a stark contrast to the gung-ho individual he was in his younger years. Despite his now passive
nature, shades of his old persona still leak out here and there during stressful situations, and there are
plenty of stressful situations found throughout their time traveling. This is no teen drama—no adolescent comedy—it’s an emotional and expressive adventure that does not end at the military morgue, but, instead, just begins there when they discover Larry’s son may not have died the way the military informed him. A concoction of feelings plagues the travelers: Sorrow, confusion, anger, nostalgia, comradery, laughter, and love. Vastly contrasting emotions that permeate every minute of this film and expertly endows viewers with
the same sentiments. We laugh and cry with them as they each try and come to terms with their past and
present. Overcome with grief, Larry—with the help of his friends—must decide whether to have his son interned in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors or take him home and have him buried via a small ceremony. This choice can also be construed as a fight between being recognized as a solider or a civilian.
While Last Flag Flaying is not visually stunning—peppered with any fancy camera angles or artistic
lighting—it is a roller-coaster ride of somersaulting emotions that’s cohesively held together by superb
writing and acting. Despite the somewhat slow-moving plot, the characters and the actors who
portray them will keep you engaged throughout.
Once the New York Film Festival’s press screening concluded, the author of the novel, Darryl Ponicsan,
director of the film, Richard Linklater, and actors Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and J. Quinton Johnson were seated on stage to discuss the adaption.
When asked about the role of humor in the movie director Richard Linklater had this to say: “I think it’s so important because it’s so real. If you’ve had the worst job or been in the worst, crappy conditions what’s always there? Humor. But when people go to represent it they think oh, that’s terrible—they cancel it by being so serious about it. These guys were hilarious, in the book and in life. I think it’s appropriate even in the worst of circumstances. I do like that combo though, it’s my view of the world: tragic and comedic right on top of each other.”
Bryan Cranston also commented on the subject of humor. “I think in any great narrative structure you’ll have a significant amount of humor to buoy the dramatic content and vice visa. It not only gives more of a rich texture to the storytelling, it also gives the audience a little break from any kind of downbeat. You’ve
got a chance to breath, slowdown, laugh, and then get back into the journey. And it’s how we grieve. I remember when I was 13-years-old my grand-father died, and it’s the first person I knew who I really
loved, and at his wake there were pockets of people who were laughing and telling jokes, and I
was furious—I was absolutely out of my mind with anger because I felt, immaturely at the time, that this is
so disrespectful. They couldn’t have loved him, because they are laughing. What we now know, of course,
is that people grieve in different ways, and I think one of the best moments in the film is on the train when Doc (Larry) who was just crushed with so much depression and pain, when he found a way to laugh naturally is heartbreaking. And Steve did it in such a beautiful way.”
Last Flag Flying is now showing in cinemas.
Photos by Dean Moses