When a father learns his Bronze Star son didn’t die in the heroic way the military claims, is there any way to alleviate his grief?
“Last Flag Flying,” released in select theaters Nov. 3 from indie director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), is a slow-burning, milquetoast critique of the American military from the perspective of man grieving his only son’s death in Iraq. The movie is actually bit of a sleeper, but packs such a deep emotional punch that I can imagine some of the toughest Marines I know would be blubbering by the credits.
With notable exceptions like “American Sniper” and “The Hurt Locker,” Hollywood and independent film producers generally haven’t found a winning model for movies about the Iraq war. It’s a difficult movie about America’s latest desert wars that asks the difficult questions about whether a war on the other side of the world is worth the lives of our best and brightest, and also praise the men willing to spill their blood at the direction of civilian politicians.
“Last Flag Flying,” set in December, 2003 when the Iraq conflict was actually going well, treats the war as a setting for three veterans to work through regrets from the Vietnam war and the years after, and renew their friendship while helping a fellow vet grieve his fallen son.
The story, based on Darryl Ponicsan novel of the same name and loosely connected to the 1973 movie “The Last Detail,” is like a travelogue, where three men are pulled together by the common mission to a fallen soldier’s body back to his family’s plot in New Hampshire, and get in and out of scrapes that are both tragic and comical along the way.
The actors playing the trio of Vietnam vets — two former Marines played by Brian Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, and one hapless Navy man portrayed by Steve Carell — give outstanding individual performances but never quite gel as an ensemble.
Flag is a hard movie to watch, emotionally. No one with a heartbeat can see rows of occupied silver coffins, draped in flags, in an Air Force hangar, without a sticky throat. The movie is funny, too. The grief is mitigated with obscene, outrageous jokes that only dirty old devil dogs from the Corps could think up. But beyond that, the movie’s biggest problem is that it moves slowly.
Without spoiling the plot too much beyond viewing the trailer, the conflict of the film arises when the quiet and perennially unfortunate “Doc,” played by Steve Carrell, finds out his Marine son’s death in Iraq is not the heroic death military officials told him it was.
How could he allow his son to be buried in Arlington with a Bronze Star knowing the actual circumstances—killed in action, but not particularly heroically—of his death? Despite a colonel insisting that the boy was “a brave Marine, a credit to the Corps, served his country well” and belongs in a hero’s grave, Doc ropes his long-lost friends into transporting his son’s body back home.
Most of the movie is spent watching time pass. The action and dialogue do let the viewer get to know the characters, brought to life brilliantly by three of the greatest active male actors, but the character development doesn’t translate meaningfully into the story or explain later actions like typical narrative structures. That’s Linklater’s way. The journey, the passage of time, is interesting in itself because it captures what life is like for the characters.
The small fabrication by the powers that be lead Doc, a Navy man who unluckily got a bad conduct discharge and spent most of his years of service in military prisons, and his friends, to question the folly of sending our boys to get killed to remove a foreign dictator. For the bulk of the movies runtime, the military, Bush 43, the commissioned officers and the grunts who buy into the company line, are ridiculed, dismissed and blamed for killing kids.
Until the emotionally devastating final ten minutes, the movie seems to take a completely anti-war and anti-military stance as crotchety, jaded veterans bemoan the trauma they experienced and regret the poor decisions they made in the service, and deal with fresh tragedy.
Maybe the film is so difficult to watch because the characters chimerically jump from grief to cynicism to joy in friendship and fulfilling one’s duty. As in life, it’s sometimes unclear how someone is supposed to feel in any given scene.
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