Last Flag Flying Review (61st BFI London Film Festival)

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Director Richard Linklater has made some of the most interesting films of the last decade or two: his brilliant coming-of-age dramedy Everybody Wants Some was one of last year’s most revered films while his Before… Trilogy has gathered many an admirer over the years since its inception and remains to this day the great example of a romance film of the last two decades. And, of course, who doesn’t love School of Rock?

For his new endeavour, Linklater turns his attention to 1973 film The Last Detail and a “spiritual sequel” that is based on the book by Darryl Ponicsan which itself is a sequel to the film itself. But the film adaptation loosely follows the original film and stars Steve Carell as “Doc”, a former marine whose life has been beset with the worst of tragedies in the years since with his wife sadly passing after a battle with cancer and, most recently, he has discovered that his son has died whilst fighting the war in the Middle East, namely Baghdad.

Desperate to bring his son home, he revisits his two old friends from the corp: Sal (Cranston), a man with a big heart but a rebellious streak; and Mueller (Fishburne), now proceeding over a local church faculty far removed from his duty days. Reunited, the men uncover old wounds as they try to negotiate getting Doc’s son home amongst the politics and dynamics of 21st-century war.

While it doesn’t tread any new ground with its themes of friendship, camaraderie and the mental fallouts of war, Last Flag’s success lies with a trifecta of performances that is amongst the best of their careers. Carell, as detached as he has ever been from the likes of Michael Scott and Brick Tamland, once again proves his majesty in drama providing a performance of pathos and heart; while Fishburne, no stranger to war after his early Apocalypse Now appearance is his usual mix of authority and power.

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It’s Cranston, though, who is the “Trump” card here with arguably his greatest ever performance and one that deserves a Supporting Actor nod for sure. Sal is the kind of friend you hate to love as everything he does is almost designed to bring those around him down but he has a heart the size of the world and despite such irritations, is perhaps the best person to have on such a road trip.

Linklater, always in his element whilst embedded in character nuances and snappy, thoughtful dialogue, enjoys similar joys here to those from the Before’s but doesn’t quite get under the skin enough here to really bring these men’s anger and frustrations to the fore as much as you would have hoped. That said, the time spent with them is always both joyful and truthful, and helps papers over such cracks to make the film never anything but immensely enjoyable throughout and thanks to the talent on show it raises Last Flag Flying into the must-see category.

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