Susan Granger’s review of “Last Flag Flying” (Amazon Studios/Lionsgate)
In 2003, when his only son, a Marine, is killed in the Iraq War, former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) tracks down his two Marine Corps buddies from the Vietnam War to help him bury his boy.
Traveling from his home in New Hampshire, Larry visits the bar run by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a rowdy alcoholic who doesn’t recognize him at first. After all, they haven’t seen each other for 30 years.
Then they find now-Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is reluctant to leave his wife and congregation to join this unexpected road trip. While obnoxious Sal and prickly Richard squabble, Larry is trying to cope with his overwhelming grief.
Eventually, they wind up in a hangar at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, confronted by an unctuous Colonel (Yul Vazquez) and five metallic coffins covered by American flags.
When Larry learns exactly how his son died in Baghdad, he decides to refuse burial at Arlington National Cemetery, preferring, instead, to inter him next to his mother in the local Portsmouth graveyard.
So the trio embarks on a bittersweet ride up the East Coast, accompanied by a young Marine escort, one of Larry’s son’s buddies (J. Quinton Johnson). Along the way, they reminisce, reconcile their differences and come to terms with the long-term effects of the conflict that continues to contour their lives.
Adapted by director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) and Darryl Ponicsan from Poniscan’s 2005 novel, it’s a memory drama about male bonding and communal guilt over America’s choice to wage war in foreign countries where our occupying forces are not welcome.
There are indelible connections between this Linklater film and Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail” (1973), starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young, which was also based on a novel by Darryl Poniscan.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Last Flag Flying” is a somber, sorrowful 6. Instead of sentimentality, it’s thought-provoking, a very different kind of war film.