Richard Linklater’s preoccupation with time reaches its most poignant heights in Last Flag Flying. The film is about Vietnam veteran, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrel) who reunites with his former war buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne) in the hopes that they accompany him to pick up his son’s body for a home funeral. During the course of the film, we learn that Doc’s son was killed in the Iraq War.
In Linklater’s previous films, time has been depicted as a snapshot for the audience to learn how it has affected his characters. This is most evident in the Before Trilogy, where we see how the years have changed Celine and Jessie’s worldviews as much as their feelings for one another.
By comparison, time in Last Flag Flying is used as a form of paralleling, as the experiences of the Vietnam veterans are juxtaposed with the soldiers who fought during the Iraq War. Aside from the correlations between both conflicts, Linklater’s most salient points are about how time does not change the nature of war, and how it’s sadly still used as a form of character and masculinity building.
In other regards, the concept is used as a ticking clock as to how long the audience have to wait to see the veterans regressing to their old personalities. This culminates in an amusingly protracted comic sequence with all the characters reminiscing about how they spent their downtime during the war.
The scene along with a line from Sal, “With time ticking fast away… so if there’s one minute that’s not too terrible, I’d like to try to enjoy it” shows that Linklater is equally playful with time.
Last Flag Flying is a real slice of life picture. It’s a film that is propelled by its characters having a rare sort of every-day authenticity that makes them feel like fun and charming people to be around. Bryan Cranston, in particular, impresses with a no-nonsense stubbornness that can both frustrate and delight in the same moment.
Though the picture is occasionally deflated by some unnecessary moralising, such as an awkward scene when Doc reacts to a news broadcast of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush, as well as a slightly clumsy ending. Linklater’s trademark genuineness flies high here, and his grappling with time and the personal meaning of being a soldier resonate exceedingly well.