Monday, 9 October 2017

LFF 2017: Last Flag Flying

dir. Richard Linklater, USA, 2017
Richard Linklater hasn't finished musing on the male bonding process just yet guys, so if the cripplingly macho / faintly homoerotic undertones of Dazed And Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! left you cold then maybe give Last Flag Flying a wide berth. That would be a shame though, because there's much more going on here than just three quinquagenarian males busting each others' balls for two hours, even though that in itself is enormously watchable.

A loose companion piece to Hal Ashby's 1973 Jack Nicholson-starrer The Last Detail, Last Flag Flying is adapted from a novel by the same author (Darryl Ponicsan) and explores similar themes of military fraternity through the prism of a road trip fuelled, as The Last Detail's was, by beer and frustration. This time round, though, the protagonists are two decades older, wearing those years on their faces like battle scars and trying to forget what their younger counterparts had yet to experience.

It's December 2003, and Steve Carell's subdued Vietnam veteran brings together Bryan Cranston's directionless alcoholic and Laurence Fishburne's reformed pastor when it transpires that they're the only friends he has who might help him cross the country to bury his son, a soldier who recently died in Iraq. The trio haven't seen each other in nearly thirty years, and their reunion is as bittersweet as anything you'd expect Linklater to lay out before you.
Bryan's fishing stories were becoming increasingly improbable

That premise might lead you to expect a catalogue of road movie clich├ęs, but this is Richard Linklater we're talking about, so expect the unexpected. Expect a restrained performance from Steve Carell, who makes you feel his character's pain without a single moment of actorly showboating; expect mountains of dialogue tossed off with such effortless charm by the three leads that two hours fly by; expect a rigorous treatise on the concept of military heroism and the lies required to reinforce it, thereby feeding the war machine with an infinite supply of young men and women willing to lay down their lives for a flag.

Last Flag Flying is a film about comradeship in peacetime as much as in war, and while it has plenty to say about the abyss between what goes on in a warzone and how much of that filters through to the public's eyes and ears, it never stoops to preaching. Linklater is passionate about respect for others' beliefs, principles and wishes, and that respect is both championed and questioned throughout his film. His preoccupations with notions of masculinity are given a thorough workout too, with each of the lead characters displaying all the pros and cons of a range of archetypes: at one point, Fishburne and Cranston are almost literally the angel and devil on Carell's shoulders, leading you to wonder how they might possibly get through the film without killing each other.

Thought-provoking without being didactic despite a clear anti-war stance, this is Linklater in a melancholy but stirringly intelligent frame of mind. It's funny when it needs to be (a scene involving a discussion of Bryan Cranston's penis is eye-watering) and everyone is firing on all cylinders to ensure you won't be bored, but there are depths to Linklater's script that deserve your consideration. Incomparable with, yet intrinsically connected to, his Before trilogy, his college-based comedies or the epic sprawl of Boyhood, Last Flag Flying is the work of a director still capable of surprising with familiarity.

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