“Last Flag Flying” is a movie about morality that thinks its a movie about grief. The most interesting parts of the film are when Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell and Laurence Fishburne’s marine characters battle with ethical dilemmas that have no easy answer: Should a soldier who didn’t die a hero be given a hero’s funeral? Or is it worth correcting a lie of how a soldier died, if it will erase the comfort that lie brought a soldier’s mom?
These questions, at times, make “Last Flag Flying” irresistible. Sadly, those times are too few and far between because we’re given monotonously boring and stilted dialogue to make up for most of the film. Carrell plays Larry ‘Doc’ Shephard, a soft-spoken every man whose son just died in Iraq. He visits Sal (Bryan Cranston) his former Vietnam military chap who is much more outspoken and rude, like the 50-year-old geezer offering you a joint at a concert just because he wants to feel young. Then they meet up with Fishburne’s character Reverand Richard Mueller, a stoic religious leader who reluctantly joins them on their journey to take Doc’s son to his final resting place.
Sal and Richard clash over faith but not in an interesting way, with Sal hurling religious questions you might expect from a fifth grader. “So god’s in this room right now huh? Is he waving at me?” It’s obnoxious, both the comments themselves and the fact that the role of religion in this movie was reduced just to stupid comedic banter. Director Richard Linklater co-wrote the script with Darryl Ponicsan, the author of the original novel. Somewhere in that script, there is ample opportunity for Fishburne’s character to talk about a crisis of faith he had when he became a priest and how that related to being a marine or the current predicament he finds himself in. Instead, Fishburne is reduced to nothing more than the good guy sitting opposite Cranston’s bad guy on Carrell’s weighty shoulders. The only interesting character is Washington, a young marine played by J. Quinton Johnson, who was the best friend of Carrell’s son. Washington has to carry a heavy moral burden in the film, one whose ultimate resolution is deeply unsatisfying.
This movie seems like a bizarre choice for someone like Linklater, a filmmaker best known for pictures that just kind of meander all over the place, where the destination isn’t important but the journey. “Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood,” “Everybody Wants Some!” and even the “Before” trilogy fit are all great examples of this unstructured storytelling. That free-wheeling mode of filmmaking can be effective if wielded in slice-of-life type movies, where we aren’t depicting an event like “Last Flag Flying” so much as a general vibe like “Dazed and Confused” or “Boyhood.”
It’s possible that the movie’s slowness comes from Linklater wanting to take a not-so-obvious moral road with his characters, where they don’t explicitly burp out dialogue like “I’m conflicted about this and it makes me feel upset!” “Oh, what a coincidence, that dilemma you’re having is quite similar to the dilemma I am having!” But if Linklater wanted to be deep, he failed, considering how his characters are so boring they never rise above their logline descriptions.