Amazon Studios 2 hours 4 minutes R Reviewed November 10, 2017
Oscar winning Writer/Director, Richard Linklater (Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!!), tackles a very tough subject in this film. It is laced with buddy friendship and humor as well as so much sadness. Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan wrote the screenplay from Ponsican's book.
When veteran Larry “Doc” Shepherd’s Marine son is killed in action in 2003 in Iraq, Doc reaches out to friends from his own days in the service to help bury his boy. But he hasn’t seen his buddies since they served together in Viet Nam 30 years ago.
Steven Carell as “Doc” goes to gather his two compatriots. Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), is an alcoholic who owns a bar and is still one wild and crazy guy. The good Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) was one too, but changed when he found a good woman and became a preacher. Doc, is a soft spoken widower looking for friends who can give him the support he needs to bury his child.
Cranston is in his element and must’ve had fun being outrageously inappropriate and silly as Sal. Linklater lets him go wild. Fishburne is the opposite and we think to a fault. He is too reserved and becomes almost invisible at times. Carell plays it meek, but his understated demeanor is the most powerful.
There are lots of problems and antics as the three men travel, drink and party together on their road trip which has all kinds of fits and starts. Cranston as Sal leads the way to drunk bad behavior, missing trains and talking his buds into buying those new fangled mobile phones in 2003 so they can call each other. Funny scene.
But once at Arlington, Doc decides he wants to bury his boy back home in New Hampshire. Colonel (Yul Vazquez, The Infiltrator, Captain Phillips) is adamant trying to talk him out of it. One of the most poignant scenes is when Doc insists on seeing his son for the last time after being warned that it will not be pretty. Carell carries the scene with so much emotion as you watch him stand at the open casket and grieve. The film shows how impersonal the government can be in such situations. It might make you want to scream.
Doc also gets to meet his son’s best friend, Washington, played by J. Quinton Johnson (also in Everybody Wants Some!!). He’s a Marine who was with his son when he died and he has a story to tell that changes the situation dramatically. Doc and his buddies make it their mission to transport the casket themselves. The follow shot of them wheeling the casket out makes you feel part of the procession and it feels weird.
Young officer Washington is assigned to be the official escort for the ride on the train. The best scene showing their friendship and camaraderie is in the car with the casket telling old stories that bring genuine laughs and hilarious stories about their days together in the service. They’re a little forced, but will make you laugh. The fun subsides as they decide to stop on the way and visit the mother of one of their buddies who didn’t make it out of Viet Nam. Cicely Tyson as the mother is not in for long, but makes a statement on the heroes of war.
The funeral in New Hampshire is gut wrenching watching Carell graveside. But the way the scenes are shot of neighbors and friends at Doc’s home is really empty, unemotional and goes on too long. In fact, the whole film is about 15-20 minutes too long. The message is evident throughout the film. Nothing changes dramatically once the boys are on the road together and it could have been tightened up considerably.
This is a story of life and war and how the scars of those memories are never left behind. Cranston as Sal leads the way with crazy levity, but he is as sad a character as any. Linklater lets Carell express Doc’s emotions quietly and effectively. The director also shows how grief and comedy can live side by side.