Three 'Vietnam War' vets reunite after 30 years and embark on a bittersweet road trip to bury a young Marine killed in 'The Iraq War'.
In 2003, 30 years after they served together in 'The Vietnam War', former Navy Corps medic Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with Former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) on a different type of mission: to bury Larry’s son, a young Marine killed in 'The Iraq War'. Larry decides to forgo burial at 'Arlington Cemetery' and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up 'The East Coast' to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Larry, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives. The film follows the trio as they wrestle with the pangs of war both past and present.
In 2003, three decades after a tour of duty in Vietnam, soft-spoken New Hampshire family man Larry Shepherd surprises alcoholic former Marine Sal Nealon when he shows up at his bar in Norfolk, Virginia. Together they visit their formerly wild comrade-in-arms Richard Mueller at the church where he now serves as pastor. Soon after, Larry reveals that his son, a Marine, has been killed in Iraq. He asks his two friends to accompany him on a road trip to attend the young man’s burial at 'Arlington Cemetery'. When the vets arrive at 'Dover Air Force Base' in Delaware, where the remains have been sent, they meet the young Marine’s best friend, Corporal Charlie Washington (Quinton Johnson), who casts doubt on the official story of how Larry Jr. died. Stunned by the news, Larry decides to bury his son near the family home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Accompanied by Washington, the three vets escort the casket on a north-bound train, debating the existence of God, reminiscing about their tour of duty in Vietnam and revealing a dark secret that still haunt each of them. After a stopover in New York City, the men visit the mother of a fallen comrade in Boston, then proceed to Larry’s hometown, where Sal and Mueller don their dress blues as Larry says goodbye to his son for the last time. "Last Flag Flying" brims with humor, melancholy and regret as it examines the lasting effect of choices made in the crucible of war.
From that very first scene Larry’s literally being rained on and we've the camera move down on him like the world’s slowly crushing the poor guy. As revealed over the course of "Last Flag Flying", Larry took the fall for his friends and spent two years in a naval prison for a crime whose consequences still haunt all three of them. That was then. Now Lary’s pretty mild-mannered, quiet, contemplative. He enjoys a simple life, he values his family and that’s really become the core of his existence. “For Last Flag Flying, it’s a relatively simple palette. It’s not so much manipulating the audience into some emotion that’s not there. It’s more about supporting the emotion that’s already in the scene and heightening it just a little bit. There’s a road trip theme, because the film includes that element of a fun buddy movie. But there’s also this weight and heaviness, so we've music dealing with the dead son, whose coffin keeps appearing. And there’s also this intimate friendship theme. Here and there, the film layers these themes on top of each other. In another nod to rootsy Americana, "Last Flag Flying" features a performance by 'The Band’s Levon Helm' as Larry oversees the burial of his son. In the climactic sequence, Helm can be heard singing 'Wide River To Cross'.
Haunted by the violence he witnessed during his extended tour of duty in Vietnam, Mueller sought refuge in alcohol after the war before turning his life around and becoming the pastor of a small, predominantly African-American church. The transition from civilian life to military life changes you. “And if you survive the war and try to transition back into civilian life, that also requires you to change. It’s a really complex journey. The film gradually unmasks surprising facets of Mueller’s personality as his measured pastor persona slips away after a few hours in the company of his former comrades. When these old buddies get back together, they fall back into the roles they had during the war. It takes a while, but Sal brings out the devil in the Reverend Mueller a little bit. When Sal almost gets them killed by taking on an 18-wheeler, Mueller cuts loose and unloads on him. At that point, it’s like the genie’s out of the bottle. And for the rest of the movie, it’s as though the Marine’s on one shoulder and the reverend is on the other.
Sal Nealon is an ex-Marine who has become a womanizing tavern owner in the years following the war. Sal’s an interesting dude because he covers up a lot of his emotional baggage with all this energy, some of which is natural and some of which comes from various substances. He has an oral fixation. He needs to either be talking or smoking or eating or drinking or chewing, he’s constantly doing something. He’s an irritant to Mueller, who might call him the piece of sand in the oyster. But out of that, Sal would say, comes a pearl. Sal self-medicates because he’s covering a lot of pain and guilt from his 'Vietnam War' experience. He’s not comfortable revealing his feelings so he tamps it down primarily with alcohol. He considers himself the life of the party kind of guy, but on this journey he opens up and discovers that what’s really important is friendship.
This movie is a sequel to the book 'The Last Detail'. At that point, the war in Iraq was already a disaster and the book said a lot about these echoes of Vietnam in relation to Iraq. But mostly it's these three characters, Larry, Sal and Mueller. Their characters were like brothers 30 years ago, so the film explores what it feels like in middle age when you’re kind of thrust back in time. The culture back then wasn’t ready to deal with 'The Iraq War', which was happening right in front of us with no end in sight. When you think about the history of war movies, the best ones usually arrive years later, when people are finally ready to start examining what happened. The film is going to come back around. We can set it in December 2003 at the time they catch Saddam Hussein. People might remember that moment, so it grounds the story in some kind of shared reality, which is going back to the original intent of the book.
When you hear the setup for "Last Flag Flying", it sounds pretty dark, but there’s a lot of funny stuff as well. The film takes great pains to not beat people over the head with the moral of the story. That juxtaposition of humor and tragedy is something Linklater has touched on in previous films. In a way, it's a college reunion movie, because it’s about these guys who haven’t seen each other in 30 years, and they get back together because of this tragic event. They've to re-examine their relationships, re-examine who they're now, how they connect or don’t connect as adults 30 years later. The war is really a backdrop for the interdependencies between three guys, which is fascinating. "Last Flag Flying" is also really interesting in the way that it deals with veterans from two different conflicts. You've these three Vietnam veterans but then you also have Washington, a veteran of 'The Iraq War'. They've so many things in common. This movie is a really interesting opportunity to show what people who return from these conflicts have to deal with.
"Last Flag Flying’s" second act takes place largely on trains as the three Vietnam vets, along with Corporal Washington, escort Larry Jr.’s casket north from Delaware to New Hampshire. The film’s emotional atmosphere is also reflected in it's look, including the nearly constant bleakness of the weather. This movie has a certain texture, not just photographically, but the overall feel including the design has this wintry vibe, with the rain, and the December-ness of this story. You realize the huge debt we owe to all the men and women who serve in the armed forces, fight in all these different conflicts and then, if all goes well, come home. Maybe they’re intact or maybe they come home a bit broken. We really owe them a great deal of gratitude, respect and honor. That’s the big takeaway, and we've to honor their sacrifice in the way the film tell this story. Life is a dark comedy where it’s kind of sad, but with humor on top of it. An exploration of friendship forged in wartime and tempered by the passage of time, "Last Flag Flying" challenges audiences to draw their own conclusions.