Last Flag Flying tries to lend some sentimental dignity to the scattered veterans of American wars

When someone who has endured trauma talks, what are they really saying? There’s a lot of business in the past of Last Flag Flying, some of it having to do with source material, but most of it has to do with emotional undertow: Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) has just lost his wife to cancer and his son to the Iraq War. Instead of burrowing into his own sorrow, he takes a detour before viewing his son’s remains — he looks up two men he knew in the Marines on the internet and shows up, unannounced, to ask for their company. Why them? The bonds aren’t clear; the novel this film is based on is a sequel to The Last Detail, which was adapted in 1973 by Hal Ashby and Robert Towne — in that film, these two “friends” accompanied Shepherd (played by Randy Quaid) to the brig, where he was sentenced to eight years for a pathetically small crime. Much of that film’s rite-of-guy-passage comedy took advantage of Shepherd’s born-yesterday innocence via the two others’ (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) cynical experience, but it would be a stretch to call the relationship friendly: they consider the job a “shit detail” at beginning and end. Were those four days together so meaningful to Shepherd — is that all he has in the world?

Once together, the three lapse into old memories, suggesting there’s more to it than that — special attention is given to a guilty Vietnam episode involving morphine and another soldier, dead, who paid for their negligence — but perhaps the biggest hurdle here for the director, Richard Linklater, is the dislocated experience of everything that unfolds here. Linklater, known as a generous, unironic director of long conversations and gradual revelations, isn’t exactly free to do as he likes: he co-wrote the script with the novel’s author, Darryl Ponicsan, and a similar unbalanced dynamic between the three leads comes to dominate the film. You’d lose track if you counted the number of scenes in which Carell’s Shepherd suffers in silence on a train, in a restaurant, wandering through the pre-Christmas streets of the city, while Sal Nealon (played by Bryan Cranston as the only member of the cast directly connected to the role’s previous actor — a Nicholson-as-grandiose-raconteur act takes over multiple scenes) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, as a weary, cane-leaning born-again pastor) argue over appropriate behaviour. It’s a funeral march and a veteran’s reunion, and in large part, the inquisitive appeal of Linklater’s usually digressive dialogue is lost. They argue about change, technological and social and otherwise, and remember the acts of valour of their pasts, never truly meeting as the people they are in the present.

There are moments that point to a quieter, more purposeful movie — more so in the beginning, before the three set up plans for the funeral and embark on their final path home. Nealon and Mueller don’t know how to handle this vision of their past, before their lives were so set (in bars and churches, respectively), and so, as if the better and worse angels of his personality, they sit shoulder to shoulder and try to pull him toward hope. But beyond that, they fall back inside themselves, rather than look at each other with new urgency. This isn’t a nuanced film about religion: Fishburne flips between the sanctimonious and the old sailor, cursing, then perusing his Bible and sharing surface banalities. Cranston plays Nicholson’s old role as a subdued reveler: none of the stops are trashed along the way, but he, the attention-grabbing old man of thoughts you may have seen in a comment section near you, still manages to suck all the air out of the room with ease. And Carell gives a touching performance, the John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to the two others’ distanced ignorance (no one talks to him about his personal life outside of his son’s military action), but is never given centre stage — to the end, he’s led, unknowingly, to other people’s conclusions about what life is supposed to mean.

You might say that Linklater sticks to his usual mode: each character gets time to speak their mind, in a way, no amped-up narrative structure is imposed on the action, and differing viewpoints are given equal time. But there’s something weak in the suggestion that this is a film that does something with its decade-plus-distant perspective on the Iraq War (one character says, “I don’t like the government right now! I don’t trust the government anymore!”; the act of military service is otherwise honoured in a museum-case kind of way). Perhaps it is likely you could run into any of these characters in the world outside the theatre: they talk and think like many do. But what (usually) sets Linklater apart is how he uses the mundane to suggest something more about how people connect, work, don’t. It may be that he’s simply too literal an adaptor of previously written material here; whatever the case, one only needs to see the most direct callback to Ashby’s film — in which Cranston’s character propositions a 21-year-old with a self-satisfied nod to his ceremonial uniform — to say that whatever this film is, it isn’t essential.