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D: Richard Linklater / 123m

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Deanna Reed-Foster, Cicely Tyson

A man walks into a bar… From this inauspicious beginning, writer/director Richard Linklater provides us with another unmissable movie that bristles with humour and thoughtfully constructed drama, and which introduces us to three of the most fully rounded characters you’ll meet all year (and in one movie to boot). Adapted from the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, this is a loose sequel to Ponicsan’s The Last Detail (1973) (which he also wrote the screenplay for), and features three ex-Marines, all former friends who have lost touch since coming home from Vietnam. There’s Sal (Cranston), a bar owner, Larry aka “Doc” (Carell), who still works in a civilian capacity for the Navy, and Mueller (Fishburne), who has since become a pastor. Larry is the man who walks into a bar, in order to ask for Sal’s help with something. They travel to the Mueller’s home, where Larry reveals that he would like the three of them to go to Washington. The reason? Larry’s son has recently been killed while on duty in Iraq. His body is on its way home to be buried in Arlington cemetery, and Larry would like his two old friends to help him.

And so begins a road trip that sees Larry defer much of what happens to Sal and the Mueller, animosities long forgotten dusted off and trotted out, the trio encountering insensitive bureaucracy, the Mueller being mistaken for a terrorist, some detours along the way, and their friendships withstanding the test of both time and their being together again after so long. The script also reflects on matters of grief, regret, guilt, doing the right thing, and persevering through emotional and physical anguish. It’s a movie with many layers, all dovetailing neatly together, and providing one of the most affecting experiences of 2017. Linklater and Ponicsan have made a movie that is about the basic humanity in all of us, and how it brings out the best in us, even when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is the right thing. All along, Larry believes that what he is doing is what is appropriate and correct. At first he’s happy for his son, Larry Jr, to be buried at Arlington; after all, he’s been told his son died a hero in a skirmish with insurgents. But when the truth is revealed, his feelings change. And when he’s confronted with a different point of view, his feelings are challenged and his point of view shifts again. The clever thing is, at no point is Larry wrong about how he feels or what decisions he makes.

If it’s a simple statement to make – that Life isn’t always simple or easy – it’s still an important one. Linklater and Ponicsan are on point here, and the way in which Larry’s deliberations affect both him and his friends infuses much of the interplay between the three characters. For much of the movie, Larry is reticent and appearing to be in a world all his own, as he might well be. Sal is the motor mouth, always ready to challenge authority, politics, religion, anything that he disagrees with (and there isn’t much that he doesn’t disagree with), while the Mueller, actually called Richard, is a mix of the two, thoughtful and contemplative thanks to his religious beliefs but also forthright and aggressive when he feels he needs to be. You can see how they would have been friends in Vietnam, and how they emerged from that period to become the people they are now. Their experiences back then are used to inform the characters they’ve become, and thanks to three very gifted performances, spending time with them is an absolute pleasure.

Cranston has the more showy role, talking non-stop, Sal getting the three friends into trouble deliberately or without even trying, but always making him sympathetic, someone you can see is just trying to do their best in any given situation. The actor is on rare form here, judging the mercurial aspects of the role perfectly, and also showing a more reflective side to Sal that helps make the broader tones of his portrayal that much more believable. Fishburne is, in some ways, our way in to the characters, his quiet, brooding presence more reactive than passive, and despite the Mueller’s continued reluctance to be making this extended trip (nothing quite goes according to plan – as you might expect). It’s a role that also serves to remind us of what a terrific actor Fishburne is when given the right script, the right character, and he’s encouraged by the right director. And then there’s Carell as the distant, heartbroken Larry, his emotions pushed and pulled in opposing directions, and never quite sure if he’s in the moment or merely watching it all from a distance. Like his co-stars’ it’s a perfectly pitched performance, sincere, honest and entirely credible, and when his feelings do break through, all those tempered emotions mentioned before – grief, guilt etc – come flooding through and it’s almost overwhelming, for him and for the viewer.

Of course, this being a Richard Linklater movie, it’s not all doom and gloom or a completely depressing drama. The movie is infused with a dark, satirical kind of humour that offsets the heavy lifting the script does elsewhere. Sal provides much of the verbal comedy, his quick-fire retorts and pithy observations leavening the serious nature of the material, while there are a handful of visual gags, usually juxtapositions, that pop up here and there to good effect. And then there is a scene in the baggage car of a train where reminiscences and regrets come together to form one of the movie’s most engaging and humorous moments. Line by line, and minute by minute, this is the part of the movie that highlights the true spirit of friendship that exists between the three friends, and which is perhaps one of the funniest scenes you’ll see all year (even if you don’t see this until 2018). It’s also a point in the movie that is very much needed in terms of lightening the load, and it’s perfectly executed by all concerned.

That said, there a few caveats to be made, mostly in the form of certain scenes that prove superfluous, such as one involving Yul Vazquez’s oily, dislikeable Colonel where he vents his anger at the lack of respect shown to him by Sal in particular, and a side trip to visit the mother of a fellow Marine whose death wasn’t as heroic as she believes. This is one of the movie’s main thrusts, whether the truth should be told on every occasion or are there times when a lie is justified. Quite rightly, the movie errs on the side of “depending on the situation”, but it’s a valid question and one that is ripe for debate within the movie’s own context. And the movie ends on a sentimental note that, while providing Larry with a sense of closure, is at odds with the ambiguous nature of much of the material in relation to his son’s burial. It doesn’t quite ruin the movie – it would take something much more momentous than that – but as a way to finish things off feels more contrived than anything else seen or heard up to that point.

Rating: 8/10 – some judicious trimming would have made this a 9/10 easily, but this is still a terrific movie that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible; with humour, poignancy, wonderful performances, and often beautiful cinematography from Shane F. Kelly, Last Flag Flying tackles its themes with intelligence and wit and style and huge amounts of unashamed humanity, making this another Richard Linklater movie that steals both our hearts and our minds.