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Steve Carell just soared into the Oscar race with Richard Linklater’s ‘Last Flag Flying’

NEW YORK — Richard Linklater has built his career on talky, understated films, from the stoner coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused to his Before trilogy, a decades-spanning romance saga.

So it’s unsurprising that his first foray into the war genre is no different. Last Flag Flying, which has its world premiere Thursday night at New York Film Festival, follows Vietnam War veterans Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne), who reunite with their old comrade, nicknamed Doc (Steve Carell), for the funeral of his soldier son killed in Iraq.

When Doc wants his son buried at home in New Hampshire, rather than in Arlington National Cemetery, Sal and Richard agree to help him transport the body and coffin, beginning a days-long journey through the Northeast by car, train and U-Haul truck.

“It’s my kind of war movie: a bunch of guys talking, no battles,” Linklater said at a news conference earlier in the day. “They usually don’t make war movies about (middle-aged) guys hanging out, (talking) about how it affected them. It’s always mission-based, and this was an area I was interested in: the long-term effects and how these guys changed.”

The film arrives in theaters Nov. 3 in New York and Los Angeles, and expands nationwide Nov. 17.

Last Flag Flying, adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan (who co-wrote the script with Linklater), is understandably somber and sometimes fraught. The long-separated friends clash over their disparate lifestyles — Sal is a womanizing alcoholic; Richard, a buttoned-up preacher — and later visit the mother (Cicely Tyson) of a fallen comrade who saved their lives in Vietnam.

They also befriend a young Marine, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was with Doc’s son when he was shot and killed, and bond over their similar experiences on the front lines.

But there are plenty of laughs, too, as Sal tries and eventually succeeds in getting Richard to loosen up. He also makes the most of the sad circumstances around their reunion by taking a detour to New York and buying them all cellphones so they can stay in touch.

The balance of humor and drama “gives the audience a little break from any kind of down beat,” Cranston said. “You have a chance to breathe, slow down, laugh and get back into the journey. And it’s how we grieve.”

His favorite scene happens midway through, when the friends swap funny stories about their youthful debauchery while stationed in Vietnam.

It’s the moment when Doc, “crushed with so much depression and pain, (finally) found a way to laugh,” Cranston said. “It’s heartbreaking, and Steve did it in such a beautiful way.”

Carell, who is also in theaters as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, is earning career-best reviews for his emotional turn as a grieving father. IndieWire hailed the actor’s “quietly stirring performance as a man so beaten down he looks like he’s on the verge of vanishing,” while Vulture says his “sensibly underplayed role” could land him his second Oscar nomination (after true-crime wrestling drama Foxcatcher).

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