'Last Flag Flying' Review: Steve Carell Steals The Show In Richard Linklater's New Drama [New York Film Festival]

There's one thing that Richard Linklater said while attending this year's New York Film Festival that's stuck with me: "To me, time and cinema are so intertwined that you can't even separate them." It's a sentiment that's similarly inextricable from his latest film, Last Flag Flying. There's no escaping time. The movie is a snapshot of a very specific moment in American history — one that we're still recovering from — and constantly reminds us of the passage of time despite how stuck its characters seem to be. In the moment, the big picture Linklater's getting at is hard to see, but that's the nature of time, isn't it? It's only hindsight that's 20/20.

Last Flag Flying takes place in 2003, in the middle of the Iraq War, and is given further context by its main characters, who served in the Vietnam War. Both are periods in American history that still exist in a fairly uncertain territory. There's been no atonement in either case. (As an aside, if you haven't yet watched Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's superb documentary on the Vietnam War, I highly suggest you do.) It's that lack of clarity that's weighing on every character in the film. There's Doc (Steve Carell), who's sought out his old buddies to help him bury his son, who was just killed in Iraq. There's Sal (Bryan Cranston), who's existed in a state of arrested development since coming back. And there's Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who found God after hitting rock bottom.

Of the three, it's Carell who stands out. This isn't a knock on Cranston or Fishburne — it's simply that Doc is, by nature, the center of the narrative. Broadly speaking, Sal and Mueller are the devil and angel on his shoulders, though Linklater's movies are always too inherently human to allow for coding that inherently black and white. Each man has his own demons to contend with. Sal's just happen to be the lightning rod. And Carell's performance is wrenching. There's a weight and confusion in his expression and in his delivery that's difficult to bear (aided by the way his mustache seems to lend him a permanent frown). He wants to retrieve his son's body, but more than that, this trip is an attempted reconciliation with why he died. In a war like this, the answer is that the losses they suffered were for nothing. How can anyone stomach that?

Perhaps appropriately, it's a weight that lands long after Last Flag Flying reaches the end of its runtime. In the moment, it feels strangely light — there's a moment of catharsis that feels a little too neat, and the banter between the men sometimes comes off as detours, or too light, but that's the way life is, and Linklater knows it. The movie isn't too different from Manchester by the Sea in that sense; grief is consuming, and it may never be something that's ever excised, but there will be moments where life gets in the way. For instance, there's a scene in which the three men go to buy cell phones. It's nothing to do with the funeral, nothing to do with transporting the body, and the rapport between them — Sal's the one who suggests it, and Mueller insists it's unnecessary while Doc says he wouldn't mind having one — isn't pinned on tragedy.

It's also a scene that sums up the movie's relationship with time. It's addressing a specific period, and the phones say as much. They're product placement, sure, but they're not phones and payment programs that are still available to us, now. And the theme comes up again and again. After Doc refuses to bury his son at Arlington, the three Vietnam vets are accompanied back home by Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), one of Doc's son's friends, who'd been with him at the time of his death. While their war is something they look back on, Washington's is still his present, and may be his future, too. His superior officer (Yul Vazquez) tells the men that Washington will be sent back overseas if they decide they don't want the escort.

This is hardest to watch when it comes to telling the truth. There are multitudes of lies being told that are only made harder to bear (and to break) with time. Some ought to be revealed for what they are. But others may be a kindness. Who's truly to say?

Linklater makes his own choice in how he tells the story, here. There are some punches he doesn't pull — the scene in which Doc asks to sees his son's body despite knowing that his face has been blown off is particularly wrenching — and some that he does. The ending, for instance, wraps up a little too neatly, to the point that it flounders a little in combination with how strangely sedate the score is. But Linklater has still worked a minor miracle in how he's managed to capture a specific moment in time — and a specific brand of American guilt and anti-war, pro-soldier patriotism — without falling into the kind of melodrama that would do it a disservice. (The brief images of Saddam Hussein we see, for instance, would feel exploitative in anyone else's hands.) He knows how to put real humans on the screen — think of the persistent ache in the Beyond trilogy, or the motley crew of kids in School of Rock — and Last Flag Flying is no exception to the rule.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10