Half Mast - Last Flag Flying
This is grayscale patriotism. From Laurence Fishburne's hair, to the hue of the sky over Arlington, it's all gray. Missing are the passions that usually keep a movie like this afloat. They are replaced by righteous gripes about an unjustified war and the senseless deaths that result. The problem is that there is no real connective tissue here. Sure, these three have history. Sure, the underlying reason they have come together is meaningful. But it never really feels like what we are watching is all that compelling despite the constituent pieces. We get mostly earnest performance, but the are in service of a story that lacks heat.
The basic outline here is that Doc (played by Steve Carell), Sal (played by Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (played by Laurence Fishburne) are old war buddies who served together in Vietnam. Since then, Doc has been a store clerk, Sal has run a bar and Mueller became a reverend. When Doc's son is killed fighting in Iraq, he rounds up his buddies to accompany him on the trip to claim his son's body. After all these years, the men have changed a great deal, but their memories are still there.
Along the way, they encounter challenges and ultimately decide that Doc's son should be buried in his hometown. The film contemplates the futility of war and draws parallels between the deaths in Iraq and those in Vietnam. Ultimately, the film winds up focusing on the personal sacrifices of the families of men killed in combat, instead of their place in some broader patriotic landscape. Because these deaths are so senseless, using them to further some patriotic narrative is ultimately doing more damage.
The bright spot in this esteemed cast is Steve Carell doing career best work. He is reserved and solemn, but does a wonderful job conveying the immense anger someone in his position might feel. Frustrated with his government and limited options, he trudges on. On the other end of the spectrum performance-wise is Cranston, who I generally love, but is something close to over the top here. It's not really that there's any overt outburst--just an inability to let the other performances breathe. His is the performance that makes the 124 runtime feel like it was far too much. By the time the movie's impactful final scene arrived, I felt completely detached and just wanted this story to end.
It's something like a cross between American Sniper and The Bucket List. But on whatever level these three are having fun, it never really feels like fun for the audience. The conversations wander in that true Linklater fashion and the true history that binds them is hidden for most of the film. It also lacks the visceral images that generally drive home critiques on war. Yes, it replaces them with a father's heartfelt memories of his son, but the end result feels cool and distant. It is entirely possible you will find something to love here, but it would be a mistake to expect a flag flying higher than half mast.
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