We’ve all seen a lot of anti–Vietnam War movies, and there have been quite a few anti–Iraq War movies. Last Flag Flying, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival ahead of its November 3 theatrical release, represents innovative thinking: It’s both an anti–Vietnam War and an anti–Iraq War movie. That means a double dose of trite talking points, but in its final act it pulls off an elegant surprise: Its cynicism about wars of choice is balanced by reverence for the military.
The anti–Vietnam War movies are, as a group, far better than the anti–Iraq War films because they go much deeper. Movies like Lions for Lambs (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Rendition (2007), Grace Is Gone (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), and The Lucky Ones (2008) were shallow, banal, on-the-nose propaganda. One of the cleverer and more oblique cinematic statements about Vietnam was Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), which disguised its anti-authority message in an amusing, chaotic road trip during which two sailors, one black and one white, escort a third, who has been convicted of a petty crime, to the brig at Portsmouth, N.H. The three men discover they have much more in common with one another than any of them has with the seemingly arbitrary dictates of the heartless military-justice system that has brought them together.
Directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, who is known for diffuse, loosely organized slice-of-life films that sometimes work brilliantly (Boyhood, Dazed and Confused) and at other times seem random and pointless (last year’s Everybody Wants Some!!), Last Flag Flying is a typically unhurried, ambling work. As the men make their way to the air base at Dover, Del., to pick up the casket of the fallen Marine, then escort the body north on a train toward Portsmouth for burial, the film tosses in a bunch of arbitrary comic vignettes. A couple of scenes suggest post-9/11 America was so nuts that DHS would have random Baptist ministers arrested on suspicion of being terrorists. Another scene tries to get comic mileage out of the three men being amazed by cell phones, which none of them yet have. There is a snarky reference to a dumb left-wing talking point about the Bush administration’s decision not to allow the media to photograph coffins arriving at Dover. And a colonel who appears to be respectful and deferential to the grieving father turns out to have a secret agenda: He assigns a young enlisted man (J. Quinton Johnson) to stay with the body and make sure it is buried in uniform, against the stated wishes of the father, who has no use for the military anymore.
The camaraderie of the men is palpable, and Cranston’s boisterous, often very funny performance as Sal makes him an amusing contrast to the grieving Larry, touchingly played by Carell, and Fishburne’s tightly self-controlled Mueller. As clunky as some scenes are, there’s a class-reunion warmth and a wryness about aging that make Last Flag Flying endearing.
The Tyson scene is heartbreaking, but it’s followed by an even better one at the final resting place of Larry’s fallen son. This trio may spend most of its time doing something in which military men specialize — moaning and groaning about everything, including the political leadership of their country — but when it comes right down to it, they have a sense of duty and honor that sets them apart from civilians, and so did the Marine they have gathered to bury. As much as they disagree with the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Vietnam, they know that dying for your country is part of the deal. Sal and Richard wouldn’t trade their experience in the Corps for anything, and neither would the young man in the casket.
Here’s where Last Flag Flying parts company with so many other anti–Iraq War films: These men aren’t dupes. They aren’t mindless lambs. They’re patriots, and a country without their like would be a much diminished one. Linklater, despite his liberal leanings, is a lifelong red-state filmmaker, and he gives these complicated characters the respect they deserve. Bravo to him.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.