Linklater ponders war, middle age and loss in ‘Last Flag Flying’

Austin director Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” is an odd duck, a thoughtful, often low-key-elegant relationship movie the title of which you should ignore completely.

To wit: Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel “Last Flag Flying” is a sequel to his 1970 debut novel “The Last Detail. The latter was made into a pretty great movie by Hal Ashby and starred Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. The movie version of “Flag Flying” (with screenplay by Linklater and Ponicsan) shares little but a title and vague scenario with the novel. It is NOT a sequel to the movie or novel called “The Last Detail.”

Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about what the movie IS.

We’re a few years into the Iraq War. Soft-spoken Larry “Doc” Shepherd (a wonderfully melancholy Steve Carell) enters a beat-to-heck bar in Norfolk, Virginia, owned by the vibrant, hard drinking Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston — lively, almost hyper in spots). Nealon doesn’t recognize Doc at first but is soon elated to see him.

They are old Vietnam buddies but very different men: Doc is a widower, a man of seemingly constant, low-key sorrow; Sal is a partier to the last.

Doc gets Nealon to accompany him to visit Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), their formerly gonzo compatriot and fellow Marine, now a preacher. Doc soon reveals his mission in Mueller’s living room: He wants the two men to accompany him to visit the body of his 21-year-old son, Larry Jr., who has been killed in Iraq and is due for burial at Arlington.

It also soon becomes clear that the three participated in a crime many years ago, for which only Doc did time.

When they arrive at Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the body, Doc has a change of heart when he learns from his son’s Army buddy Charlie (a terrific J. Quinton Johnson) that Larry Jr. did not die the way the Army has advertised. Doc decides, against the advice of a by-the-book colonel (Yul Vazquez and his eyelashes), to bring his son’s body back home for a civilian burial, Sal and Mueller by his side, Charlie along for the ride.

And so “Last Flag” becomes a middle-age road picture, three old men and one young trying to figure out what it all means — the military, the current war, their lives in general and the nature of truth itself. A striking scene with Cecily Tyson is a strong reminder of the balance between truth and kindness we must all bear in mind.

Linklater is, of course, incredibly good at this sort of thing, especially when it involves men (and yes, it’s usually men) sitting around talking.

It is fascinating to apply Linklater’s singular rhythms (pauses between sentences that feel just half a second too long, bits of silence sans music, a camera style from cinematographer Shane Kelly that seems almost flat and affectless) to Hollywood actors we all know very, very well.

Fishburne and Cranston are rock solid (Cranston is a little hammy in spots, but hammy-for-Linklater rather than hammy-for-anyone else, which reads as just sort of … excited), two very different views of the world with Doc in the middle. Sal adored the Corps and seems perfectly happy keeping his youthful habits as close as possible. Mueller has put away childish things for a life of the cloth.

But it’s Carell as Doc who reminds you he might be one of the most underrated dramatic film actors of his generation. Doc’s sorrow is bone-deep, but it’s his quiet anger that fascinates — Carell is never showy or thunderous. He’s a simple man who made for himself a simple, law-abiding life. And yet, life screwed him over and over.

Then again, that’s just how life works. “Last Flag Flying” reminds us that how we respond to it — the choices we make in response to it — makes us who we are.

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