The volatile political climate in the U.S. is more omnipresent in our lives than ever. It’s nearly impossible to escape from the daily news cycle of doom and gloom. On one hand, people– myself included– are more in-tune with the goings-on of the government than I’ve ever seen in my 24 years. This is good; informed and engaged citizens are the most important factor in making sure a governing body doesn’t rule unchecked. But there’s another side to this: the immediacy of the present can cause us to forget the lessons of the past. Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is our reminder of one such moment in American history that we all lived through, making it one of the most necessary films of 2017.
Last Flag Flying paints a starkly unidealized portrait of the domestic impact of the Iraq War, particularly in the conflict’s infancy. When his son is killed in duty, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) seeks out ex-Marine compatriots Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to aid him in the burial. The trio’s journey gives them a peak behind the curtain as to how the government weaves a patriotic narrative in order to foster support for its wars. The lies and manipulative tactics employed by the military can be as simple as the insincere pleasantry of telling grieving families that the President personally extends his sympathies for their loss, to falsifying entire scenarios around which soldiers were killed in order to pin their deaths as heroic. When the trio learn that Doc’s son’s death wasn’t quite the moment of guns-blazing glory that had been relayed, they start to question whether the human cost of war is meaningless.
The film draws a parallel between the revelation about the death of Doc’s son and the trio’s own guilt over the death of a friend in their unit back when they served together in Vietnam, something the government of that time similarly obfuscated beneath untruths. The ringing sentiment is cliché’d but true: war never changes, both the ugly face of it we don’t see and the heroic face we’re deceived into believing. It’s through this that Last Flag Flying stakes its relevancy in the present despite being a story cemented in our past. Distrust in the government is peaking and fake news is a reality society is becoming more aware of than ever. Our military budget bloats ever larger with its current total equalling the combined spending of the next seven countries. Officials have deemed this the best use of our tax money instead of focusing on domestic issues such as affordable healthcare and education. Yet, much like the characters in the film, we’re told to be proud of our military and our government in the name of “patriotism.”
And that’s the underlying theme that Last Flag Flying drives home: what is true patriotism? Is it to blindly fly the flag and trust in your government even when they may not act in your best interest, or is it to oppose said government in such situations so the country can be better served? The trio come to the latter conclusion. They see feats of heroism fed to them through the news, including the capture of Saddam Hussein, all the while questioning why America needed to engage in these wars in the first place. Their sentiment would be one that spread throughout the public as the Iraq War continued, and one that still to ripples through our society today. Part of film’s poignancy is that most of us watching the film now lived through this era and can relate back to it; we can remember how we felt back then and in retrospect find new lessons to apply to our current predicament. It’s this that makes Last Flag Flying a film worth seeing in 2017.
After-Thoughts: But the film is actually quite funny!
Now, forget everything I’ve said to this point and consider this: Last Flag Flying is often hilarious. Much in the way that its spiritual prequel The Last Detail (1973) does, Last Flag Flying juxtaposes moments of gut-punching reality with gut-busting laughs. What’s remarkable about both films is that these disparate elements never impede upon one another. Serious moments are never undermined by Cranston’s crude wisecracking, and in fact it’s that established nature of his character that makes it all the more poignant when he unabashedly does the things society would often (wrongly) frown upon to best serve his friend. One of the biggest pitfalls a drama like this can stumble into is drowning the audience in depressiveness until they become despondent (see last year’s Manchester by the Sea). It’s easier said than done to mix levity into difficult subject matter, making Last Flag Flying‘s success incredibly impressive, perhaps even more so than the comparably light-hearted nature of The Last Detail.
I do have my criticisms of the film, though. Where the film’s wit doesn’t undermine its dramatic integrity, product placement does. I get that it’s often a necessary evil in order to collect funds and that we’re dealing with an Amazon-produced film here, but Last Flag Flying pushes its luck to the breaking point. The instance I found particularly egregious has the men buying Motorola cellphones from a sales clerk while exchanging cheesed-up banter, a scene that you could easily mistake for a commercial for the mobile company. The cellphones are wholly unnecessary to the plot and while the interaction does conjure up a few laughs, it stops the film’s momentum right as it reaches its climax. It’s by no means a deal-breaker but I’d be remiss not to point out that this level of product placement is never a good idea.
It was an honor to see Last Flag Flying‘s world premiere at New York Film Festival and I recommend giving it a look when it releases on November 3rd.