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Monday
Nov272017

Last Flag Flying: Sizing Up the Vets 

By Spencer Coile 

In recent years, Richard Linklater has perfected the art of meandering. This is not an inherently bad quality to his filmmaking. On the contrary, recent efforts such as Before Midnight and Everybody Wants Some!! work so well because their conversations feel genuine,  real conversations happening to real people. The exchangesfeel improvised, even though they are not. When the dialogue works, Linklater captures all of the nuances of a single conversation: big and small. 

Last Flag Flying, the latest entry into Linklater's filmography, works similarly to many of his past projects. After the death of his son, Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) turns to his Vietnam veteran buddies from years past, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to travel with him to bury his son...

The film is focused on the relationship between these three characters as they talk about the past, the present, and even the future. Linklater allows these three actors to play off one another for the duration of the film. So how does each veteran actor fare? 

Steve Carell, best known for his comedic work on The Office and Oscar nominated for Foxcatcher, has the most tragic character to play in the film. Having lost his wife months ago and a son just two days prior to the film's story, Carell portrays Doc as a timid and scared loner. Many scenes that feature all three characters together show Doc sitting quietly on the side, observing quietly. For the first half of the film, he barely speaks; when he does, he is reserved. 

What works so well about Carell's performance is that he is unafraid to let his fellow castmates chew the scenery around him. Doc is introspective, speaking only when being asked a question, yet I still found myself glued to his performance. There was something almost magnetic about Carell's sadness -- possibly because he wasn't simply sad. He is surely heartbroken, but that is because his life up to that point had been so satisfying.

A scene halfway through reveals that his son, Larry Jr., boasted about having a joyous childhood, with a father he loved and respected. And rather than attempting to tug at our heartstrings, we watch as Doc processes this, glances upward briefly, and then looks back out the window. These small expressions of goodness and past joy help us see that Doc is more than just a damaged man with a troubled past. He is a kind-hearted man, working slowly to mend his broken heart. 

Steve Carell's Performance: A-

Although most renowned for his performance on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston was also Emmy nominated for his performance on Malcolm in the Middle years before. The good news about his performance in Last Flag Flying is that he is able to really use his comedic chops as Sal. Here we have a man who never grew up, and never truly said goodbye to his military days. He is irresponsible and reckless. Doc tells us that on a whim, Sal gave the keys to his bar over to a man who was passed out drunk, in order for him to go on this road trip. Indeed, Sal is abrasive, loud, and foul tempered. 

Unfortunately, there is not much else to this character. Cranston does little work to make him sympathetic or relatable. Sure, we laugh along with Sal at the start, but then as the minutes roll by, we start to realize that this is all the character is. And sadly, because the other two leading men are more subdued, we are left with Cranston chewing the scenery around every turn. It's a shame that he does little to elevate the one-note material he is given. 

Bryan Cranston's Performance: C

Arguably the smallest of the three roles, Fishburne works hard to imbue Richard with enough patience and grit to demonstrate his massive change from a certified ladies man, alcoholic, and drug addict to devoted reverend and husband. Little is known about this character's turnaround, but it doesn't matter. Because what we are left with is a man who has found faith in God, and uses that as his method of coping with loss. Oftentimes to the annoyance of Sal, Richard quotes the Bible or uses scripture to help Doc cope. Fishburne doesn't attempt to make this funny but plays it honestly and earnestly. 

That said, in comparison to both Cranston and Carell, Fishburne is not offered the richest of character development. With Carell is the emotional center and Cranston with the attention-grabbing role, Fishburne unfortunately fades into the background at times. That's a shame, because the character feels worth exploring. 

Laurence Fishburne's Performance: B

Last Flag Flying may not be remembered as Linklater's masterpiece; it feels slight compared to his previous work. And while the leading actors don't live up to their peak roles, there is something refreshing about watching each of them build rapport with one another and relive their glory days in the war. Watching Carell crack his first smile in the film, and seeing him laugh hysterically when bringing up a fond memory is a magic movie moment I will remember vividly. 

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Reader Comments (1)

I do VERY much agree that it's Carell's show, especially in the scene where he's smiling and reminiscing. One of the most joyful scenes this year. I think, however, you're giving Cranston too little credit (the movie kinda needs his infectious fun energy) and Fishburn too much (the smallness of his character hurts his performance in comparison to the other two).

November 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCal

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