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‘Last Flag Flying’ is a bit too stagey

Richard Linklater makes a lot of different kinds of movies, though most have one thing in common: dialogue. I watched his most recent effort, "Last Flag Flying" on Netflix and reviewed it for Spokane Public Radio:

Every veteran has a different story to tell. Some of those stories involve heroism. Many are merely mundane. Most, though, involve some sort of connection.

At one time, I would have characterized that specific kind of connection as “brotherhood.” With the advent of women in the military, though, that term is as dated as it is clichéd. Still, the meaning remains: Those who have experienced war constitute a kind of family. At times dysfunctional, maybe, but typically united against outside threats.

And as filmmaker Richard Linklater demonstrates with his adaptation of Daryl Ponicsan’s novel “Last Flag Flying,” some veterans see those threats not just in the form of enemy troops but also in the very military leaders whose orders they are obliged to obey.

The year is 2003, and Linklater introduces us to three Vietnam veterans. Larry (played by Steve Carell) seeks out two men he served with, Sal (played by Bryan Cranston) and Richard (played by Laurence Fishburne). Larry served as a Navy corpsman, which earned him the nickname “Doc,” while Sal and Richard were Marines.

Doc has a specific reason to want to reconnect with these old buddies: His own Marine son has been killed while serving in Iraq, his wife has already passed on, and he wants – or, rather, needs – support as he goes to meet the plane bringing home his son’s coffin.

The task isn’t as easy as you’d think. Sal is a hard-drinking, cynical and foul-mouthed character – much like Jack Nicholson’s character Buddusky is in Hal Ashby’s 1975 version of an earlier Ponicsan novel, “The Last Detail.” Meanwhile, Richard is now the Reverend Richard, a former hell-raiser turned man of God. The often caustic interplay between Sal and Richard, even as they try to pay Doc back for crimes they all committed but only he was punished for, supplies most of the movie’s energy.

And while “Last Flag Flying” seems like an oddity among Linklater films – which range from the quintessential high-school study “Dazed and Confused” to the poignant exploration of love as portrayed in his “Before” trilogy – the fact that it is talk-heavy helps it fit right in.

The problem, for me, is that much of the talk in “Last Flag Flying” feels too mannered. As good as Cranston and Fishburne have proven to be in both film and TV over the years, the two of them feel here more like actors strutting on a stage than actors creating realistic characters for the screen. Cranston, in particular, tends to overplay Sal to the point, at times, almost of parody.

That sense of staginess extends to a scene involving the Marine friend of Doc’s son who is assigned the job of escorting the body home, and his commanding officer. As played out by J. Quinton Johnson as the Marine and Yul Vasquez as the officer, the scene plays out an acting exercise that should never have been included in the final cut.

Which is too bad. War stories don’t need such embellishments. The connections they portray, even when fictional, are real enough. Just ask any veteran.