RICHARD LINKLATER’s Last Flag Flying (Cert. 15) is a loosely based sequel to The Last Detail (1975), in which Jack Nicholson heads an escort taking Larry, a rookie sailor, to prison, but not before giving him a good send-off.
The new film is set in 2003. Steve Carell (Evan Almighty) plays Larry. When his son, a Marine, gets killed in Iraq, he seeks out fellow Vietnam veteran Sal (Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad), who is now running a bar. They visit their formerly wild comrade Richard (Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus in The Matrix series) at the church where he is pastor. Larry asks them as friends from long ago to attend the burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Thus, have we the basis for what is essentially a road movie, one that in Linklater’s hands becomes a poignant, witty, if occasionally sentimental journey of the soul. On reaching the Air Force base, they secretly discover that the military’s official account of the cause of death is a lie. Larry decides to take the body back home to New Hampshire, which they can do thanks to Richard’s being a licensed clergyman.
The film is at its best in the way in which characters interact. Sal, in many ways, lives up to his name, Salvatore, in that he is continually Larry’s saviour, helping him, if somewhat unconventionally, both to grieve yet have hope. A hard-drinking motormouth he may be, but it is this restless search for truth that encourages Larry. Richard tries to spare him from finding out how his son really died. He is prepared to perpetuate the lie. “What’s more important?” Richard asks. “I don’t know,” Sal says. “But it’s never the lie.”
Much dialogue centres on Sal’s quizzing his erstwhile whoring, drug-ridden hell-raiser, now Baptist minister, about faith. Referring to his clerical collar, he asks “Is it like a tracking system, so God always knows where you are?” That isn’t so far from the fact of the matter. He isn’t long back in Sal’s company before reverting to language that could make a sailor blush.
One wonders if the previous Richard, temporarily released from his ecclesiastical role, will re-emerge. We learn that it was only when reaching rock bottom that he began to explore his inner self, and found Jesus waiting for him there. Sal has yet to do just that. Richard, when challenging Sal’s alcohol dependency, receives the perhaps envious retort “You’ve got God. This is my God.” The quiet, introverted Larry acts as the audience’s referee in assessing the respective strengths of his pals’ theological arguments.
What unites the three is shame over an incident in Vietnam in which they failed to do the right thing. Each is seeking amendment and forgiveness. When the opportunity comes, they are confronted by humanity’s limitations to remedy wrongs.
It is at this point that we realise why the story is set on the verge of Christmas: all the references are quite subtle — seasonal background music faintly heard, the occasional Christmas tree, etc. — but they act as reminders that salvation is about the Light for ever striving to illuminate worlds overshadowed by sadness. As the credits roll, Bob Dylan sings “Not Dark Yet”.
On general release.