Doc Shepherd’s son has died, shot in the head in Baghdad. He can be buried in Arlington cemetery, but after Doc hears there’s more to his son’s death than he’s been told, he decides he will take his boy home and bury him next to his mother Mary.
Accompanying him with various degrees of willingness are two men Doc (Steve Carell) served with in Vietnam, who he has looked up after 30 years to stand with him at his son’s funeral: hard drinking, womanising bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), and pastor Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne).
All have permanent reminders of that war as well as memories and guilt at the manner of death of a fellow soldier. Sal has a plate in his head, Richard a damaged leg, Doc is still humiliated by his brig time.
It’s Christmas time in Richard Linkater’s road and rail movie, and though it isn’t mentioned (only chilly weather and garishly decorated trees allude to it), it’s still a reminder that a time supposedly for family often simply highlights fractured relationships and devastating loss. And it’s one more reason Doc would cleave to these men he hasn’t seen for so long, now his wife and son have died. Doc seems to be trudging onwards, enduring the pain like a medieval hairshirt: “I don’t want to make it easy on myself” he states.
Doc’s son was a hero, we repeatedly hear from the Military, despite confusion over how he really died. The vast hanger the flag-draped coffins reside in is pale and calm, but it is also utilitarian, with plain uncomfortable chairs, and the coffee mess that turns out to be simply a nearby table with hot drinks and donuts. Once the flag is removed the coffin is functional grey, high on its practical wheeled trolley.
It’s here we meet Colonel Wilits, a man clinging to the rules and regulations of Forces life and its oft repeated maxims about heroism. And though there’s a battle of sorts between him and the three men over what is the most appropriate burial, it’s all rather sad as Wilits seems to be acting with the best of intentions. He’s misguided but not evil, and to him Doc’s son is the Forces’ son too.
Also present in that hangar is Washington (J Quinton Johnson), Larry’s greatest friend in the Military, who can tell Doc the unvarnished truth about the death, and who – when the Colonel demands he accompany the body to Doc’s home – is happy to go. (He is also is the only real link with the young man neither Sal or Richard ever met, pointing out to Doc that his son was unusual in their unit for having had a happy childhood.)
For Doc the journey turns out to be as important as the burial. It’s not an easy route home, physically or emotionally, with its missed trains and middle aged crankiness, and there were times when as a viewer time passed too slowly and events dragged.
There are some genuinely funny moments though. Ex-brawler Richard Mueller, now a happily married pastor and grandfather with a flock which dotes on his interpretation of the Scriptures, now he’s in the presence of old comrades reverts back to shrieks and swearing. (There’s a very good Mueller / Mauler / Mullah gag too.) But not everything rings true. There’s a running joke about cell phones though I’m not convinced that in 2003 none of them would own one already. Especially as Sal would probably have had one of those giant bricks in the late 80s to facilitate his love of the ladies.
Even my ancient dad had one by the turn of the century (admittedly he didn’t know how to use it, and when he mislaid my mum on a day trip neither could call the other as they didn’t know each other’s phone numbers. But HE HAD A MOBILE PHONE WELL BEFORE 2003). The same with the Internet, which is spoken about in mystical tones despite us having our first dotcom crash well before then.
It’s the performances that make this film. Carell is subtly magnificent as a man increasingly determined to do what he thinks is right for his son, with no proof it is what he’d have wanted, after decades of quiet meekness working for the Navy as a clerk (it’s almost as if he needed that family before he knew his own would be destroyed). Cranston is brilliantly abrasive as a man who says the wrong thing most of the time but who like Wilits, the opponent he so desperately needs, means well. And Fishburne is extraordinary as the reformed pastor, who deep down knows that his sobriety is on shaky ground and, with a flock depending on him, is initially prepared to abandon his old friends to returned home to the wife who is his backbone.
Few women appear in Last Flag Flying, though the ones there certainly make their mark. Cicely Tyson is both heartbreaking and breathtaking as the elderly mother of Jimmy Hightower, a fellow soldier who served with the three men in Vietnam but died in mysterious circumstances, guileless in her acceptance when Doc, Sal and Richard turn up on her doorstep and too understanding of the rest of her absent family. And Deanna Reed-Forster is warmly funny as Mueller’s wife, sending him on his way to help his long lost friends because it’s the right thing to do.
A common theme of war films is truth, and while Last Flag Flying isn’t strictly a war film, it does question whether truth is always the best approach. Sal is abrasive and annoying unless in small doses, but he is truthful; which sometimes works well, and drives the story forward when Doc is initially too retiring, too shrunk back into his anorak, to do it himself.
But Sal puts so many people’s backs up along the way, that whether overall he is help or hindrance is moot. And while it’s an admittedly paternalistic approach, truth isn’t always the best policy. Sometimes telling the truth is an unburdening too, and not even slightly altruistic. In fact Jimmy Hightower’s mother so nearly becomes a vehicle for three middle aged men to find peace when it’s not her job to make them feel better, however troubled they are.