NYFF Film Review: ‘Last Flag Flying’ Soars with Steve Carell Leading the Charge

2017 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Going through the Richard Linklater filmography, you discover his obsession with the theme of time whether it’s in his high school comedy “Dazed and Confused,” his beloved love story of Celine and Jesse in the “Before” series, or his 12-year masterpiece “Boyhood.”  In his newest film “Last Flag Flying,” Linklater creates his own type of war film, done in the mannerisms and dialogue we’ve come to expect from the iconic filmmaker.  The final result stands tall as one of his finest works yet.

Last Flag Flying,” tells the story of three Vietnam veterans, thirty years after they served together. One of them, Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (played by Steve Carell) reunites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon (played by Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (played by Laurence Fishburne), to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

It’s been amazing to see what Steve Carell has managed to bring to Hollywood post-“Office.”  With electrifying works in “Foxcatcher” and “Battle of the Sexes,” Carell may have brought his most tender and precious performance yet.  Similar to what we saw Bruce Dern achieve in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Carell does so much with so little words.  His heartbreak is worn on face and in his motions.  He stares out of a moving train, not speaking, yet you are fixated on what he may or may not be thinking about.  It may take some time to realize what Carell achieves in this monumental piece but when it is, the acting and film world will be a little better for it.  It’s an Oscar-caliber performance that’s not just worthy of a nomination, but for awarding.

In what is designed to be scene-stealing and scene-chewing, Bryan Cranston‘s loud and boisterous alcoholic bartender is the film’s comic grace.  Admittedly, the character is a lot to handle, and will likely be the deciding factor for many whether or not they buy into it or not.  Cranston plays Sal like the “Donald Trump” of our cinematic minds.  Outspoken, feeling as though he must tell the truth, even when he’s wrong.  His heart is in the right place, but he’s so blinded by his own guilt, that he can’t keep himself from digging the hole a little deeper.  Cranston plays it all extremely well.

In what might be his best performance since his Oscar-nominated work in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Laurence Fishburne sings his role like a beautiful bird.  Bestowing wisdom and hope in one scene, and erupting with the fury of his “former self” in the next is what’s truly remarkable.  While the general moviegoer will be hypnotized by Cranston’s funny antics, Fishburne is one of the standout pillars of the film that should not be forgotten.

Darryl Ponicsan adapts his own book with co-writer Linklater, enriching the film’s sensibilities with an overwhelming heartache entrenched within four spectacular characters.  The quirks and beats that live within J. Quinton Johnson, who plays Washington, Doc’s son’s best friend in the Corps, is tremendous.  Sprinkle this in with a one-scene powerplay by Academy Award nominee Cicely Tyson, your tear ducts will be working overtime on this wild and dramatic ride.

As we come to expect from many Linklater films, the soundtrack is on another level of greatness.  Taking place in 2003, it’s a period piece that crosses generations.  While Sandra Adair‘s editing isn’t as tight as one would hope, she hits a home run in the clutch moments.

Last Flag Flying” is a vivid tribute to soldiers, both alive and dead.  It delivers a perspective that’s recognizable in war dramas yet resembling and sounding like a classic Linklater outing.  It’s one of the very best films of the year and could hit the right note with many Academy members.  It’s utterly engaging and deeply felt!

“Last Flag Flying” is opening the New York Film Festival, is distributed by Amazon Studios, and opens in theaters on Nov. 3.

GRADE: (★½)

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