(CNN)"Last Flag Flying" is a low-key gem, a sober reflection on grief that connects the Iraq and Vietnam wars, burnishing Richard Linklater's credentials as one of the day's most gifted filmmakers. With a terrific trio in Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne, additional salutes might come when award time rolls around.
'Last Flag Flying' earns heartfelt salute
The movie's backstory is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Darryl Ponicsan's novel was written as a sequel to "The Last Detail," itself turned into a memorable film starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. Although the characters roughly line up, "Last Flag Flying" dispenses with that connection, even if familiarity with the 1973 movie enriches the experience.
It's the first year of the Iraq war, and former Marine Sal (Cranston) is minding his own business running a bar when Carell's Larry "Doc" Shepherd ambles back into his life, 30 years later. A sad-sack sort who spent time in a military brig, Doc has looked Sal up to accompany him on a terrible mission, retrieving the body of his son -- slated for burial at Arlington Cemetery -- who was killed in Iraq.
Sal agrees, and Doc has one more pickup in mind, enlisting Sal's long-lost buddy Mueller (Fishburne), a one-time wild-man and partner in crime who turned his life around and, much to Sal's amusement, became a pastor.
What ensues initially looks like a standard-issue road movie, with the three getting into mild misadventures and marveling over (relatively) new technology, like mobile phones. Linklater (who wrote the script with Ponicsan) brings a theatrical quality to their banter, teasing out the characters' shared history while engaging in thoughtful debate about the war, trusting the military and the lies people tell, or don't, in their contortions to comfort loved ones.
The three are joined by a young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson, also terrific) who served with Doc's son, and brings his own up-to-date perspective to their discussions and talk about sacrifice.
"Last Flag Flying" risks dragging in places -- the gang spends quite a long time on a train, without much to do but gab -- but the story gradually gains momentum, and its hold seldom wavers. The film's closing stretch is moving and profound, while feeling completely organic to the story.
A trifle mannered at first, the performances similarly grow on you, capturing the bonds these men shared -- forged through loss, pain and guilt -- even if they can't always give voice to them. Cranston, echoing Nicholson's swagger, has the showiest part, but everyone's at the top of their game, and while the movie yields plenty of laughs, it's another testament to Carell's chops as a dramatic actor in a role understandably buttoned up to the point of clenched.
"Last Flag Flying" happens to arrive at a moment where it shares the stage with fact-based projects addressing Iraq and its aftermath, but none deal more poignantly with the questions it raises about the nature of heroism and whether the mission was worth the price paid.
Capturing the inherent emotion in that, ultimately, is the test that "Last Flag Flying" passes with flying colors.
"Last Flag Flying" opens Nov. 3 in the U.S. It's rated R.