Last Flag Flying
Monday, 11.20.2017, 04:27 AM
Last Flag Flying, the new film from Oscar® nominated director Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise, School of Rock), walks a fine line. While not hiding its anti-war mantle, the film also sincerely salutes those who serve.
Larry “Doc” Shepherd, Sal Nealon and Richard “the mauler” Mueller, all served together in Vietnam. Shepherd (Oscar nominee Steve Carell), walks into the Norfolk, Virginia bar Nealon (Emmy® winner Bryan Cranston) owns and manages. Though they served together 30 years ago, and have lost touch, through the internet, Shepherd has tracked down not only buddy Nealon, but also Mueller (Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne), now a Virginia church pastor.
The film is set in 2003, so, unlike the present, many people did not live their lives attached to the web. When someone from your past suddenly appears in your life, your're a little disconcerted. Yet Shepherd has managed to locate both his buddies and asks for their help in dealing with a sudden personal tragedy. Shepherd was just informed by the U.S. Military that his son, a Marine stationed in Iraq, lost his life in a military incident. The Military is flying home the body and is planning to bury him at Arlington, as befits a hero. The official story, as Doc knows it, is that his son died in a heroic manner, saving his buddies while sacrificing his own life.
But are the facts that Doc has been told the truth of the matter? The trio knows how easily military "facts" can be manipulated, having done just that themselves, while serving their own extended tour of duty. The irony that Doc's own son chose to serve in the military is not lost on Nealon. In the past, Doc was charged for the death of a fellow serviceman while in-country. He was discharged, sentenced and served his time. But the official story vs. the truth of that serviceman's death is part of the greater mystery of the film.
Following his release from prison, Doc sought employment. Surprisingly, he was hired by the military, and has been working as a distribution manager in a warehouse in New Hampshire. Apparently, he never revealed the truth of the shadows in his past to his newly-enlisted son.
Though he does not regret his service, Doc has spent the last 30 years wondering what America was actually fighting for, both while he served in Viet Nam, and now with the conflict in Iraq. We learn that Nealon and Mueller's thoughts have also wandered down that same track. Who, and what, was the U.S. actually protecting thorough these conflicts? What were our interests in these countries? What was our goal? Was it worth it? And what is the deeper mystery that binds together these three men?
After some negotiation, the trio agree to travel to Dover AFB to claim Doc's son's body. Doc is asked what plan his son had if he should not return. Doc tells us, “He was only 21. He wasn't thinking about dying.”
While at Dover, Doc asks to have the casket opened, to view his son's remains, a request which the Military designee tries vehemently to discourage. Doc is told that his son was shot in the back of the head, and is badly disfigured. But Doc perseveres and gets to see his son for one last time. What he views leaves him visibly distraught.
However, the information gleaned from the designee, Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez), by both Doc and his buddies while at the viewing, along with the story alluded to by Doc's son's best friend, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), is more disturbing and begins to cast doubt as to the truth of the 'official story.'
Doc decides to not bury his son in Arlington, but to take him home to New Hampshire, to be buried alongside his mom, Doc's late wife. Washington is assigned by Wilits to accompany the body, which will now be respectfully transported on an Amtrak train. To place you in the actual time period, we are shown the capture of Saddam in various news clips.
It is on this journey that the secret that the three men have held for 30 years is revealed. That journey leads us to the door of an elderly woman, the mother of a fellow serviceman. Why is it that one can see a slice of an actress's face, between the door and the door jamb, and know in an instant who that actress is? She's not listed in the credits. But her role, in the trio's story, is one of weighty significance. It reveals the nature of the men to themselves, to each other, and to the audience.
Cranston's Nealon is a man with no boundaries, always feeling he knows what's best for everyone, and freely telling them so. Mueller finds comfort in his Church, yet wavers when he's called upon to do the Christian thing. Doc is trying to make peace with his own decisions. His character tells us,
“We are a good country, but if you catch your government lying to you, it changes everything.”
Throughout the transfer of his son's body, and along the journey, fellow servicemen treat the casket with the utmost respect. Through strong acting and storytelling, Last Flag Flying explores patriotism, and whether or not these past wars, or any wars in the future, are worth the price of our individual humanity. Especially when we are so aware that those in power lie so easily to those who serve.
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