All of the three leads are incredible but Bryan Cranston shines here. His performance as the nihilistic Sal rivals that of his work in Breaking Bad and easily ranks high among his film roles. He gets a chance to sink his teeth into the soul of this disillusioned vet who is just over the bullshit he has seen in his life. Sal has a refreshing level of honesty and an utter lack of filter. He will hook you in from the opening scene in the bar. Some of his best one liners materialize when he squares off against Mueller who is his mirror image. They both have strong philosophies and get at each other’s throats trying to make sense of the other’s way of life. Doc is the emotional anchor is this trio as his tragedy is the driving force and the reason these old friends embark on this bittersweet trip. I almost see these characters as three variations of the same man. Sal is the bitter extremist, Mueller is the peaceful sage and Doc lands somewhere in between.
Backstory is handled well in the film. There are no forced, unnecessary flashbacks to past memories. Instead, the audience has to rely to on the strength of this cast to get the impression that Sal, Doc and Mueller have had shared experiences off camera. These men reminisce about Vietnam and it is clear that that war has changed all of them in profound ways. They come to terms with the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The next generation of soldiers will soon feel the same level of disenfranchisement that they do. My favorite moment comes when the three vets are laughing about an inappropriate memory and for the first time, we see the heartbroken Doc crack a smile and join in. At that instance, you can tell these people used to be close brothers in the good old days who have sadly grown out of touch and forged their separate paths.
My only gripe with the movie is that it sort of lacks a plot. There is a story being told here but it is extremely character driven instead of a series of events being triggered in order for things to happen. This is really a road trip movie so the majority of scenes are in cars, trucks and trains as the men unpack their issues. If anything, it’s just strange. The actual story seems to just be an excuse to get these individuals talking to one another and reliving their glory days. That’s fine by me when the emotional journey is this good. At a runtime just over two hours, you can’t really go wrong with this one. The movie respects your time and trusts that the characters will keep you laughing and occasionally make you reflect on the unpredictability of life.
I cannot recommend Last Flag Flying enough. It will probably be in limited release but if you don’t catch it in theaters, check it out when it hits VOD. It is a gem of a movie that I hope finds its way to more people because it is surprising and touching.