3 1/2 (out of 4)
Richard Linklater broadens his already rich filmography with a stark, emotional, dramatic sidestep to his typical output of red-cheeked, down-to-earth optimism.
Not that his indelible knack for concocting scripts with simple premises, identifiably realistic characters and textured, humanistic dialogue doesn’t take hold as well in Last Flag Flying. Linklater’s touches of pleasant humor and revealing interplay between his major characters are still very much intact – Bryan Cranston’s character Sal Nealon makes for an especially adept vessel to channel the American filmmaker's most easygoing, buoyant subtextual wishes.
It's actually Steve Carell's meek leading role as "Doc" Shepherd that affects the senses so honestly and painfully. "Doc" recruits Sal and preacher Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), buddies from his Marine days in Vietnam, to assist him as he travels to acquire and bury his fallen 21-year-old son of the same military class. Sal and Richard spar with one another about basic existentialism in typical Linklater fashion, but it efficiently reveals their characters. Honorably examining contrasting ideologies, this is a clever way to show how these brothers and soldiers at heart can be men who have trod down very different paths in their adult life.
Given the whimper of praise when the film was quietly released several months ago in limited theaters, I didn’t count on Last Flag Flying to be so utterly heartbreaking or so properly free of any pro-war propaganda. Depicting the wells of silence that come with new mourning and the scrappy yet sacred support that old friends can offer, Linklater somehow makes a military film that is patriotic without being at all jingoistic.
Zeroing in on the oft-ignored after-effects of deadly conflicts – in this case Iraq in 2003 – for families back home, American Sniper this is not. Linklater sticks to his relatively liberal, anti-nationalist agenda and in the process he creates a devastating portrait of loss that can be identified with far beyond the empathy of fellow serviceman.
To keep it brief...