Last Flag Flying ★★★½

Who pressed the button that granted critics the day off when reviewing this? I’m baffled by their general laziness (epitomised by Bradshaw’s sniffy Guardian capsule), by their wilful refusal to interrogate beyond the film’s ostensibly conservative style. There’s a savage critique of a truly pointless foreign policy here; the film centres on the human cost of the War in Iraq as felt by ordinary people trying to reconcile a sense of patriotic duty with their growing awareness of how rotten it all is. But these guys aren’t undergoing some radical transformation into anti-imperialist activists, and so of course the film is going to seem to be pulling punches. Travers in Rolling Stone even criticises the ending for its mixed message—as if multivalent narrative meaning is a bad thing, and as if characters in a drama are supposed to voice ideas above their station (and to ideally direct them outward, to the audience, to ensure we know what the film’s politics are). I mean, do they read the funeral scene as a celebration of American imperialism?

It did take me a while to shirk inevitable and probably unfavourable comparisons to Ashby’s 1973 film, partly because of the distracting contradiction between changing character names but having Cranston impersonate Nicholson as ‘Badass’ Buddusky anyway… I still don’t know why the characters’ names were changed; is it because Carell is about half the height of Randy Quaid? Whatever, the performances are convincing enough for the characters to grow into their own—Fishburne and Cranston are both excellent, and Carell is kind of heart-breaking as a guy having to process firstly the anguish of losing his only son and then the understandable anger prompted by the discovery of how he died. There’s a ‘remember when’ scene late on, in which it feels like the three actors are improvising their way through a tired script; then Cranston dry-humps Fishburne’s leg and talks about his hard-on watching him shave. It’s completely transcendent.