Friday, November 17, 2017

Last Flag Flying: Long may it wave

Last Flag Flying (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and crude remarks

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.17.17

This may be the most unusual road film I’ve ever seen.

The genre is characterized by a trip undertaken by two (sometimes more) individuals who initially don’t get along, and often bond — if only to a degree — by journey’s end. “Great truths” about the travelers are revealed along the way; the more thoughtful scripts also include perceptive social commentary, sometimes speaking to the human condition.

When another snag interrupts their melancholy journey, Sal (Bryan Cranston, right)
naturally drags his companions — Richard (Laurence Fishburne, left) and Doc (Steve
Carell) — to the nearest bar.
The approach can be straight drama, high comedy or a combination of the two. The best examples employ gentle laughter to illuminate human foibles.

Director Richard Linklater has co-scripted — with Darryl Ponicsan — a deeply moving road film that builds to an almost unbearably poignant conclusion. Last Flag Flying has much to recommend it, starting with a clever narrative that is punctuated by often hilarious dialogue. Linklater also draws deeply moving performances from his three stars, and equal mention must be made of the two key co-stars.

But the film is too long at 124 minutes, the pacing too deliberate, many of the slow takes too lingering. Whether in cars, bars, restaurants or trains, this is essentially a “talking heads” experience, and — no matter how well sculpted the drama — that’s hard to sustain for two full hours.

Which is a shame. Tightened by even 10 to 15 minutes, this film might have been a classic for the ages.

The story, set in 2003, begins when soft-spoken New Hampshire family man and former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) unexpectedly shows up at the Norfolk, Va., bar owned by alcoholic former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). Three decades removed from their shared tour in Vietnam, Sal doesn’t immediately recognize his former buddy; once past that snag, smiles abound.

Doc asks a favor; Sal doesn’t hesitate a blink before accepting. Doc drives them a few hours away, where they’re just in time to catch a church service led by Pastor Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a mutual comrade-in-arms remembered as an unrestrained Marine tear-away. The unexpected dichotomy is almost more than the giggling Sal can stand.

Later, sharing a sumptuous meal prepared by Richard’s wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster), Doc confesses the purpose for this reunion. He has just learned that his only son, a young Marine, has been killed in Iraq; Doc hopes that his two friends will accompany him on a road trip to attend the 21-year-old Larry Jr.’s burial at Arlington Cemetery. They agree.

This process begins with a brief “coffin ceremony” at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, where military coffins are de-planed clandestinely, to avoid the public glare (a shameful media blackout orchestrated at the time by the Bush administration, in an effort to recast the Iraqi conflict as a “good news” story).

They meet Lance Cpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), Larry Jr.’s best friend and fellow Marine, who has accompanied his buddy’s remains back home. The suspiciously cynical Sal, forever seeking to illuminate even the most painful truths, wheedles some details from Washington that cast doubt on what Doc has been told about his son’s death.

Stunned by this revelation, Doc impulsively decides that he’d rather bury his son near his home in Portsmouth. Which means transporting the coffin that distance, which in turn greatly expands what Sal and Richard thought would be a brief act of kindness.

As befits the genre, what follows is laden with unexpected hiccups.

The three-way dynamic proves unexpectedly complicated, which (of course) is what fuels the narrative. We immediately wonder why Doc isn’t accompanied by Portsmouth friends he has made during the past 30 years, and instead turns to the never-seen-since Sal and Richard. We chalk it up to the everlasting bond of military solidarity, but it’s not that simple.

Indeed, nowhere near that simple, as we eventually learn; Linklater and Ponicsan drop hints and details in tantalizing bits and pieces.

Cranston and Fishburne have the showier roles, because Carell’s lugubrious Doc spends most of the story in a muted, withdrawn state of minor shock. His grief is palpable, his silent anguish depicted with heartbreaking verisimilitude by Carell. But Doc isn’t consumed merely by sorrow; his shy, frequent sideways glances suggest uncertainty in his present company. And we wonder why.

The scruffy, ill-kempt Cranston is a force of nature. Whereas Richard has abandoned his former sinful ways, found God and resolutely embraced a nobler path, Sal has cheerfully abandoned himself to vice. He’s unapologetically profane — regardless of setting — and relentlessly confrontational, determined to probe and expose any and all “dark secrets” in the hopes of scoring a laugh at somebody else’s expense.

Sal is rude and crude: at times thoroughly unlikable. But his candor and persistent demand for truth has its upside, even as we gradually realize that this insistence on painful honesty may have less to do with moral righteousness, and more to do with atonement.

Regardless, Sal gets all the best and funniest lines, and Cranston delivers them with superb comic timing.

Fishburne’s (initially) unruffled dignity is hilarious merely by comparison. Richard’s raised-eye slow take — in the midst of a sermon, when he first spots Doc and Sal — is the first indication of the delightful trouble to come. The harder Richard tries to retain his composure and civility, the more Sal pokes at him. Watching the gravely formal Fishburne gradually crumble, in the face of this merciless onslaught, is poetry in motion.

Johnson is appropriately spit-and-polish as Washington: the absolute epitome of military honor. The young Marine’s respect, politeness and generosity of spirit feel absolutely genuine; Johnson virtually exudes nobility. At the same time, he’s by no means a stiff archetype; the story gives Washington numerous opportunities to loosen up, at which point he becomes even more captivating.

The scene-stealing Medal of Honor, however, goes to Yul Vazquez, as the officious Col. Wilits: the officer in charge of the Dover Air Force Base ceremony, who repeatedly argues in favor of the intended burial at Arlington Cemetery. Vazquez absolutely deserves an Academy Award nomination for this role; the insufferable Wilits is both hilarious and scary, exuding — while trying to check — arrogance, impatience, hostility, resentment, contempt and intolerance for any and all who’d dare even think of defying him. Vazquez’s withering gaze is to die for.

Bruce Curtis’ production design is uncomplicated but effective: from the warmth of the home that Richard and Ruth share, to the dilapidated filth of Sal’s bar. (A visit to the men’s room is the stuff of nightmares.) Graham Reynolds’ music is understated and sparse; Linklater uses very little underscore, preferring brief, telling and well-placed extracts from songs such as Sil Austin’s “Slow Walk” and Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.”

Linklater could — should — have allowed editor Sandra Adair a firmer hand.

The overly reverential tempo is mitigated, at times, by unexpected revelations: not the least of which is the painful recognition that well-intentioned lies can be kinder than truth. But the film still moves too slowly ... although I suppose we should be grateful; Linklater’s Boyhood clocked in at 165 minutes.

Pacing aside, there’s much to enjoy about Last Flag Flying, a respectful, earnest and undeniably touching dramedy that, yes, speaks volumes about the human condition.

And manages to be quite entertaining, in the process.

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