After getting a considerable amount of awards buzz and prestige acclaim in 2014 with Boyhood, it made sense for critics to expect Richard Linklater to begin tackling heavier, larger projects and become both the new Oscars darling and awards season box-office draw. However, this is Linklater we're talking about. The man is only interested in stories and characters that he's personally interested in, and apart from bringing them to the screen in as much of a depthful and natural way possible, the commercial value of his projects have always taken a back seat. School of Rock was a huge hit not because he decided to deliver a crowd-pleasing comedy to make a buck, but because his natural and empathetic approach to the characters created a crowd-pleasing comedy.
The same can be said about the financial failure of Everybody Wants Some, the recent spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused and his follow-up to Boyhood. Viewers might have expected a raunchy college comedy and might have been disappointed to get an introspective and character-driven look into that delicate period of moving into adulthood, but again, all Linklater tried to do was to be loyal to what his characters needed from the story, not the other way around.
Now comes Last Flag Flying, which also went by our overcrowded popular culture stratosphere without much of a splash. As an examination and yes, celebration of lives of US veterans in the civilian realm, it's not as blind rah-rah patriotic like Clint Eastwood's recent work to attract a conservative audience that always harp on Hollywood's inability to give the troops their due. Yes, it's a film where the veterans have a mouthful of criticism and anger towards the wars they have been forced to risk their lives in, and are still suffering from the demons that clung to them from that past. Yet it's also a celebration of the special kind of camaraderie that could only come from being side by side in a battlefield.
The most touching scene in the film involves barely any dialogue: A trio of Vietnam veterans and a much younger Iraq war veteran are waiting for a train to get going so they can bury the Vietnam veterans' son, who was killed in Iraq, back in his hometown. They see civilians going about their regular lives, buying gifts and planning for a cheery future. Linklater focuses on the forlorn but knowing looks between the veterans. They might be from different generations, but they understand each other's culture, and know that non-veterans will never really understand what they're really going through.
The grief-stricken father is Doc (Steve Carrell, in a rare yet powerful understated performance), who asks his fellow Vietnam vets (An alcoholic rabble rouser played with wonderful gusto by Bryan Cranston, and a preacher played by Laurence Fishburne) he hasn't seen in decades to accompany him to the funeral. Some technical details go wrong along the way, in true road movie fashion, but the focus is mostly on the inner conflict, how these characters managed or didn't manage to move on after the war. The script by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on Ponicsan's novel, is character-based and always strives to ring true, in true Linklater fashion. It faces the many emotional problems of these characters head on, yet it's not a miserabilist experience. He gives just as much weight on the special friendship that exists between brothers of war, how they can resume their special connection immediately, even if decades have passed. The performances are downright sublime across the board, as it's hard to expect any less from such a spectacular cast.
This is a film that uses a lot of natural lighting and natural colors to capture the various locations of the American landscape. The 1080p transfer does an excellent job of capturing those colors and details with impressive clarity and depth. That being said, the focus is on a natural look and characters, so don't expect much technical grandstanding.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track offers clear dialogue and ambient sounds to place the audience into the characters' journey. Apart from that, don't expect much surround presence.
Unexpected Journey: This is a 15-minute making-of featurette that's somewhere between a documentary and an EPK. It's not a self-aggrandizing as an EPK, but not depthful enough either.
Outtakes: With such a comedically talented cast, of course we get an almost ten minute long gag reel.
Veterans Day: A short featurette about the scene that depicts families picking up the caskets of their fallen loved ones.
Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to the Hal Ashby masterpiece, The Last Detail, also written by Ponicsan. It doesn't necessarily pack the same gut punch as The Last Detail, only a handful of other films do, but it's a character piece that's always loyal to its themes and always rings true. In other words, it's what we expect from Linklater, and even a bit more.