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Movie Review

"We were all something once," Sal Nealon says. "Now we're something else."

Once, Sal was a proud Marine fighting for his country in Vietnam. Now, he operates a pub in Norfolk, Va., that bears his name. It's a sad, forgotten destiny, one that Sal drowns in liquor and fends off with his acerbic, profanity-strewn wit.

But one night, a man wanders in for a drink. His tired eyes, slumped shoulders and defeated demeanor hint at another sad story.

"You don't remember me, do you?" the man says to Sal.

Sal looks closer, peering into a face he last saw 30 years ago: "Doc?!" An unlikely reunion commences as Sal and Larry "Doc" Shepherd, who fought together in Vietnam, get reacquainted. But unlike some reunions, theirs isn't a joyful one.

The next morning, Larry instructs Sal to meet him at a nearby Baptist church. Ironic, given that the only relationship Sal has with Jesus comes from misusing His name. As they walk into church, a preacher thunders from the pulpit: "As Christians, we have choices," he preaches, adding that when we lay down our own will, "God will take care of all the rest."

Sal can't believe it. No, not the message. (Though he doesn't buy that, either.) What he can't believe is the man delivering it: Richard Mueller, the once-randy Marine once known as Mueller the Mauler, the third surviving member of Sal and Larry's Vietnam posse.

After the service, Larry relates the reason he's sought them out. Not only has his beloved wife died of breast cancer, but he's just learned that his only child, Larry Jr., was killed in Baghdad. And Larry Sr. wonders if Sal and Richard would accompany him to receive the body, then be there as he buries his boy.

Sal agrees quickly. Richard does so only after his wife shames him into it. "They represent a very dark period in my life," Richard says of Sal and Larry. "And you represent God!" she retorts. And that's that.

Together, these three vets begin an unlikely road trip that winds from Norfolk to Dover, Del., through New York City and Boston and finally back to New Hampshire to bury Larry's son. It's a journey of closure not only for Larry, but for Sal and Richard, too, as they're forced to confront haunting guilt over what they experienced in Vietnam.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

When we first meet him, Larry is struggling with the gut-wrenching grief of learning that his 21-year-old son, a Marine, has been killed in Iraq. But he's consoled by the news that his son died a hero, emptying his clip and saving others as he reportedly staved off an ambush.

When Larry, Sal and Richard reach the Air Force hanger in Dover, Del., (where the young man's body is being returned), they learn a different story. As a colonel delivers the official story separately to Larry, a lance corporal Marine named Washington confides in Richard and Sal that the real story isn't heroic at all, but random and tragic. While getting a Coke in a store one day, an Iraqi insurgent shot Larry Jr. in the back of the head.

Sal feels compelled to tell Larry the truth, despite Richard's protests that it won't help. And … it doesn't. When Larry learns that the government has lied to him about his son's death—a death that now seems meaningless and random, not heroic at all—it unleashes a tidal wave of cynicism and bitterness toward the government, toward wars fought for no apparent reason that accomplish little more than wasting young lives.

That, not surprisingly, leads the men to reconsider their own experience in another "meaningless" war: Vietnam. And as the story unfolds, they find they need to tell the truth about their shared responsibility in the death of a comrade.

By now, the men are accompanying Larry Jr.'s body back to New Hampshire via train (joined by Lance Cpl. Washington). At Sal's urging, they stop in Boston to talk with the mother of that fallen comrade from Vietnam. They intend to tell her what really happened to him—which, like Larry Jr.'s death, was far from the heroic story she was told.

When the time comes to reveal the truth, however, Sal can't bring himself to do it. Instead, he lets the elderly woman continue believing the more noble story the government told her 30 years before. Richard and Larry nod in agreement. In doing so, the three men do exactly the same thing they've been so angry at the government for doing to them. This unexpected twist begs the morally and philosophically ticklish question of whether telling an untruth can ever be the most loving choice someone could make. In this case, the film strongly suggests that Sal's last-minute choice was more merciful than it was morally objectionable, and that delivering the brutal truth about what happened to this frail old woman might have been her undoing. (I'll return to this issue in Other Negative Elements.)

Eventually, Larry recognizes that his son's sacrificial, serving spirit was what made him a hero, not the seemingly meaningless way he actually died. Larry Jr. is buried in his Marine dress blues, with Sal and Richard dressed out similarly. It's a moment of honor and closure.

In another reflective moment, Sal admits to Larry that the only people he's ever identified with are the Marines. And even though Vietnam was awful, Sal still cherishes his identity as a Marine and the brotherhood he experienced in the service.

Apart from these war-related themes, Last Flag Flying also emphasizes the importance of friendship. Larry, Sal and Richard are lonely and isolated (though Richard less so than the other two). But as they reconnect, we see how important it is for men to have friends they can talk to, challenge, be honest with and laugh with.

Spiritual Content

Last Flag Flying has a surprising amount of spiritual content, courtesy of Richard. He relates to Sal how he changed course after the war. "I grew up, Sal. I found life's purpose along the way." Richard's relationship with Christ—whom he now serves wholeheartedly—has become the lens through which he finds significance.

We see that Richard's legalistic expressions of his faith are in part an extreme reaction against the hard-living life he left behind. He repeatedly rebukes Sal for his drinking and profanity (though Richard begins to swear again, too), scolding the man for his worldliness. He also encourages Larry, "I promise you, Doc, you will meet your wife and son again in a better place."

Richard and Sal have a running conversation about whether God exists and where He is when horrific suffering occurs. Elsewhere, Sal also complains, "With all the billions of you people floating around in heaven, how come none of them get back with the details." Richard says simply that someone did come, a clear reference to Jesus. Later, they argue about whether God is merciful or wrathful. Sal seems to believe he'll be able to sweet-talk his way into heaven, but Richard disabuses him of that notion.

Sal often mocks various aspects of Richard's faith. At one point, he says, "So Richard, what's the story with the [minister's] collar? Is it a tracking system so God knows where you are at all times?"

Richard regularly says things such as, "God bless you," "Lord have mercy" and "Praise God!" He quotes Psalm 23, and he tells Larry he'll be praying for him. We repeatedly see Richard reading his Bible.

In a scene played mostly for humor, Richard is arrested by Homeland Security agents who believe he's a radical Islamic mullah. Lance Cpl. Washington says that the Iraqi who killed Larry Jr. yelled, "Allah Akabar," which, Washington translates, means "God is great." Larry characterizes Iraq as a "godforsaken desert." We hear mention of the "sacred soil of Arlington" National Cemetery.

Sexual Content

Sal quips crudely and repeatedly about his manhood, sometimes including exaggerated, pantomiming gestures. Sal, Richard and Larry all laughingly recall a trip to a Vietnamese brothel (dubbed "Disneyland") where 19-year-old Larry lost his virginity to a prostitute. Despite minimizing and romanticizing that event in some ways, Larry later says that it was wrong and that the right context for sex was eventually in his committed relationship to his (now-deceased) wife, Mary.

Sal uses the shortened version of Richard's name in a way that's a clear and insulting double entendre. We also hear a profane reference to bestiality. Sal and a bar patron watch a reality TV police show in which cops arrest prostitutes and johns. Sal and the customer ponder why they never go after violent criminals such as rapists and murderers. We hear multiple references to "whorehouses." Sal hits on a much younger woman at a funeral home.

We glimpse a plastic figurine of a woman bending over (revealing her underwear) atop a draught beer spigot lever in Sal's bar.

Violent Content

We hear graphic verbal descriptions of the wound Larry Jr. received after being shot in the head. Despite a colonel's strong counsel otherwise ("Sir, what you see, you will not be able to unsee"), Larry insists on viewing his boy's body. We don't see the body itself, but we watch the father's weeping expression of horror when casket is opened. He later says that his son "didn't have a face" because of the bullet's horrific exit wound.

Crude or Profane Language

About 75 f-words, including variants paired with "mother," "tard" and God's name. More than 25 s-words. God's name is taken in vain about half a dozen times, two of which uses are paired with "d--n." Jesus name is abused a dozen or so times. We hear about a dozen uses of "a--," five uses of "h---," four of "b--ch," and a couple of "d--n." We also hear about a dozen crude anatomical slang terms for the both the male and female anatomy, the worst of which is an explicit reference to oral sex. There's one coarse hand gesture toward a truck driver.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Sal drinks nonstop, sometimes downing multiple drinks in a row. Richard eventually confronts him, telling Sal that he's clearly an alcoholic. (Richard admits that he was an alcoholic, too, before getting sober many years before.) Sal's shrugs, "It's what I got instead of God."

Sal has a penchant for smoking cigars, which we see him do repeatedly (including in bed in a hotel room).

We eventually learn the incident that led to the collective shame of these three men involved stealing and abusing morphine that was intended for wounded soldiers. It's implied that the men's usage of the drug led to a comrade being wounded in the first place because they were too incapacitated to help him. And because they'd used up all of the drug already, their mortally wounded friend didn't have the benefit of the drug's pain-killing properties as he lay screaming and dying. It's a memory they're still emotionally scarred by.

Other Negative Elements

Sal urinates beside a car, joking crassly, "Hey Mueller, now I see God." A sign in Sal's bar says, "You Can't Pee for Free." Sal waxes eloquent about the fact that New York City smells like urine. In a cynical moment, he also opines, "We're born in pain, live in fear and die alone."

Sal's decision to lie about a fallen comrade to his mother is painted by the filmmakers as a gracious and merciful one. But he does tell an untruth—however well-intended the movie leads us to believe that deception really is.

Sal, while driving, gets into a profanity-laced road-rage incident with a semi driver that nearly leads to an accident. We hear racial slurs for both the Vietnamese and Iraqi peoples.


War is a paradoxical experience, this film suggests through layers of narrative nuance. It's heroic and horrific. Profane and profound. Full of meaning and empty of it. Bonding and alienating. A source of pride and shame.

The emotional complexity of such an experience isolates those who've endured it, Last Flag Flying tells us. And the only antidotes for such isolation are friendship and honesty. Eventually, Larry, Sal and Richard find the courage to tell the truth about what really happened to them in Vietnam. And confessing those shameful experiences to each other—even three decades after that fact—sets them on a path toward emotional wholeness that they haven't experienced since they left Vietnam.

Last Flag Flying is a powerful, emotive film. That said, it's also an extremely profane one. Sal, especially, unloads a bomb bay racked, packed and stacked with f-bombs. That dialog may well capture a degree of verisimilitude that will ring true for some who've served in the military. But listening to each one of those many, many f-bombs land makes watching this often-poignant film a painful experience, too.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon; Laurence Fishburne as Rev. Richard Mueller; Steve Carell as Larry "Doc" Shepherd; J. Quinton Johnson as Lance Cpl. Washington; Deanna Reed-Foster as Ruth Mueller; Yul Vazquez as Col. Wilits; Graham Wolfe as John Redman; Cicely Tyson as Mrs. Hightower


Richard Linklater ( )


Amazon Studios, Lionsgate



Record Label



In Theaters

November 3, 2017

On Video

January 30, 2018

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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