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Veterans of two American Wars united in hilarity and heartbreak

This great movie season continues: "Last Flag Flying" is hilarious and melancholy and, ultimately, heartbreaking and powerful. It's a haunting film about the final errand of three Vietnam vets and it's one of the best of a marvelous year for small independent films.

Their final errand together is to accompany the coffin of an Iraq War casualty home to New Hampshire, for burial. Inside the coffin is the son of one of them, "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carrell). Doc spent a couple years in the brig decades ago because he selflessly took the rap for all three of them during the Vietnam War.

If you remember the great Hal Ashby film "The Last Detail" starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid, you'll have a sense of the rich and gloriously funny comradely ribaldry of raucous guys who once served together and survived but are now occupied with a very melancholy task.

In "The Last Detail," they were taking a soldier to jail to begin a long sentence. In "The Last Flag Flying," Doc is a widower who finds his old guys from Vietnam. They're played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne.

Cranston plays Sal Nealon, a struggling bar proprietor whose most devoted and booze-sozzled customer is himself. Into his bar one day, walks Doc (Steve Carell), a sweet, shy, diffident fellow who compliments the quality of the bar's draft beer and says to the bartender "you don't recognize me, do you?"

It takes a few seconds but when the reunion happens, the reason for it is heartbreaking--Doc's son has died senselessly in the Iraq War and needs to be brought home for burial. They want to bury him at Arlington but Doc, overcome by the emptiness of losing his wife and then a son, wants him back home in New Hampshire. Doc needs his old buddies back together to give him emotional support and understanding he could get from no one else. The third of their trio (Fishburne) is now a minister named Mueller (back in the day, he was known as "Mueller the Mauler" in Vietnam's bars and brothels).

Just as was "The Last Detail," this is a film about talk--rollicking, bitter, gaudy, booze-sloshed talk whose leader is a barkeep who fancies himself truth's apostle. One buddy delivers the self-protective talk of a wild young man who grew up to be a pillar of the community and the third  imparts the shy, stricken talk of their quiet friend, who is owed a favor from them both and has come to collect to keep his soul together at the worst hour in his entire life.

Don't worry if you've never seen "The Last Detail" and therefore have no sense of how delightful Jack Nicholson was as "Badass" Buduskey, escorting a Naval miscreant to the brig. All you need to know is that this is a story about the soldiers of two wickedly unpopular American wars who have been suddenly connected in the saddest and most profoud of ways.

Their getting together is the cause for their old selves to emerge--even Mueller the Mauler whose starchy, preacher noises suddenly starting slipping off his tongue and revealing the R-rated obscenities which have been hiding underneath all along.

It's an actor's show. Cranston continues his brilliant run of the past decade--this time as a natural born leader trying to also make good on a terrible early life mistake. That, too, is why the Rev is along for the ride. And Doc is just trying to get through his life's most abject moment with some sense of self intact.

The shock here--and it's nothing short of that--is that this drama both wild and sensitive is co-written and directed by Richard Linklater. His gales of high-level talk in his movies are usually very different, whether it's "Dazed and Confused" or his amazing "Before" trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy ("Before Sunrise," etc.) He is one of the last American filmmakers I'd expect to relish the flavor of older men trying to make some sense out of the very different men they once were.

Two of these men once did an irresponsible thing in wartime and watched its terrible, agonizing consequences. The third of them is the one who took the blame and paid for it. So they need to help out their old friend to redeem themselves.

The moment when they all do in a way they could never have predicted is heart-wrenching.

With these three actors doing some of their strongest work in years, it is a hugely entertaining film that also says some haunting things about the kinds of wars Americans fight and the terrible prices sometimes paid.

Once upon a time, filmmakers gave us movies about veterans like "Coming Home." "Last Flag Flying" is a terrific film that allows no self-righteousness from anyone. It's about war veterans in a way we need now. It isn't just a moving entertainment for its audience, it's a kind of redemption for it as well.



4 stars (out of four)

Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne star as three Vietnam veterans who reunite to take the coffin containing the Iraq vet son of one of them home for burial. 124 minutes. Rated R for language.



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