Richard Linklater’s road trip film provides Steve Carell with opportunity to shine as a grieving widow and father, but even with Hollywood heavyweight Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston, it fails to hit the ground running. 

Watching Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny, a documentary about the eponymous director, it was striking how the filmmaker has crafted a very particular style throughout his cinematic canon. Self-taught, the director was one of the DIY creatives behind the 1990s Austin Film society, and went on to make cult classics such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and the experimental – ten years in the making – Boyhood.

In Last Flag Flying, Linklater returns to the modus operandi he became famous for. Set over a short period of a couple of days, the film follows former Navy doctor Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Steve Carrell) with former Marine friends Mueller ‘the mauler’ (Laurence Fishburne) and Sal (Bryan Cranston). Having served in the Vietnam War together, the film is set in 2003, and unlike the rebellious youths his films usually focus on, its protagonists are haggard by age.

Having tracked down his former allies, Doc finds in Sal a drunk bar owner, and Reverend Mueller ‘the mauler’ long rid of his penchant for prostitutes. Though changed, Doc’s friends are easily persuaded to join him in his mission to return his son, a victim of the Iraq War, to be buried at home in New Hampshire, throwing up an abundance of questions about the role of the USA in wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Steve Carell Last Flag Flying

Steve Carell as Doc in Last Flag Flying

Directed and adapted for the screen by Linklater, the road trip is based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan. Sadly, Last Flag Flying is a prime example of a story that works better in print than on screen. Lengthy monologues, extended periods of nostalgic storytelling, and reflection on bittersweet memories often work better through the writer word. As a result, the film plods along without urgency, and fails to keep the attention its content matter deserves from its audience.

That said, Last Flag Flying is genuinely touching. Carrell excels as the grieving widow and father, only in one scene showing genuine happiness as the trio bounce memories off each other about their time at war. Fishburne and Cranston work well together as the angel and devil on his shoulder. Linklater reflects on the horrors of war, and the trauma of the memories it brings to those who saw and experienced them with a lingering focus that illuminates the hangover of the Vietnam war imprinted onto America’s collective memory.

Although Last Flag Flying isn’t quirky enough to make it a whimsical take on grief, or dark enough to make it a hard-hitting drama, Linklater succeeds in bringing to life characters that we can believe in and relate to. He has a way of showing men at their weakest, underneath all their bravado, and how life and its experiences change us. This reflection on war, heroism and its lingering impact is quietly touching.

★★★☆☆

Last Flag Flying is released in the UK on 26 January 2018.