What is the value of a comforting lie? That’s the question at the heart of Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater’s sort-of sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail, in which three Vietnam vets reunite after decades apart to bury a casualty of the Iraq War. None of them can quite agree on how much truth can be humanely dispensed in the wake of a tragedy.
Fuck if I know either, and fuck if Linklater knows, but he sure is willing to puzzle it out. Like a lot of Linklater movies, Last Flag Flying is better at asking questions than responding to them, and there are no easy answers here. (As one of the characters muses, if there were easy answers, we’d probably stop fighting wars, and then people would stop dying in them.)
So Linklater does what he does best: He establishes characters who feel like real people, then set them against problems that are hard to solve. If they haven’t solved them by the time the credits roll, well, that’s how it goes sometimes.
Linklater’s three Vietnam vets are played by Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne, and they serve as rough analogues for the trio of Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young in The Last Detail. Cranston goes big with his performance, Carell goes small, and Fishburne does both.
The end result is a stellar ensemble wrangling heavy emotional beats and novelistic dialogue; on their long, strange funerary journey, the three engage in a great deal of comradely bullshitting, some soul-searching, and one of the funniest exchanges in close proximity to a corpse I’ve ever seen.
Should any of those moments work together in a single film? Probably not. But do they? They absolutely do. That’s one question about Last Flag Flying that I have no problem answering.