By Jacob Mello
It was cast all wrong. Maybe if Carell and Fishburne switched parts? Who knows. Cranston, in the token Ethan Hawk role, was the bright spot. Though, I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been had Linklater just cast Hawk in that part, like nature intended. (I’m not saying Tim Burton needs to put Johnny Depp in every film from now on, simply because he has in the past. I’m not even saying both of their careers wouldn’t be arguably better off if they discontinued their relationship all together. I’m simply saying, if you watch a Burton film and there’s a character in full white face who’s not Depp, the whole thing seems slightly amiss, that’s all.)
The scope of this one wasn’t quite right: If the film would have started earlier with just Carell’s character, back at home, and made us feel like despite the estrangement, his military pals were the only ones who could understand his plight. Or if the group would have been closer or simultaneously struggling with their own larger than life ‘civilian’ problems – too big to handle alone, but as a unit: manageable. Or if the dead son would have been a fourth platoon pal that they all owed a debt to, and thus were equally beholden to and invested in instead of being basically an awkward favor for 2/3 of the group. Maybe then, the movie would have been gripping. But as is, it was simply a character piece in which the only thing keeping them tethered together was boredom, guilt trips, and a need to make feature length running time.
The story was told with a light touch, especially considering the subject matter, and there were genuine moments across the spectrum that were truly affecting. Overall, however, the story meandered and just didn’t quite come together. I can’t place the blame in an exact spot with guaranteed accuracy, considering Linklater has made a career out of plays such as: putting the camera on a couple as they walk around Paris and talk about whatever; putting the camera on a bunch of people in Austin as they talk about whatever; putting the camera on a family for 12 years as they talk about whatever – and not only has it worked, but it’s been god damn brilliant every time!
I think, contrary to everything I’ve said this year about character pieces and coming of age stories, the problem here is he injected too much plot into this. (Linklater gets a pass on going plotless. I don’t know how or why, but the man knows how to be a fly on the wall with assassin level precision.) He’s made some great movies that were pure plot, and he’s made others that defied narrative convention all together, but it’s in going for both in the same film that things got jumbled and laborious. You can’t eat your cake and have it too, as they say.
The film was respectful of our troops while not pandering to them, and it didn’t shy away from aspects of serving and the aftermath that most filmmakers are too afraid to touch, I really appreciated that. Over all, there was some beauty to be had here, but it was easily my least favorite of Linklater’s canon. Ultimately Last Flag Flying never flew above half-masts.
For a better movie about soldiers and the voids left by war, even if that’s the only similarity to this film: Watch Saving Private Ryan.
For better movies by Richard Linklater: Watch The Before Trilogy, Bernie, School of Rock.