Review: Flag Day

Knowing that Sean Penn directs and stars in this drama, based on a true story, and that he plays a truth-challenged, mostly absent father, the alert viewer will already be forewarned about the emotional drudgery in store. Taken from a memoir written by journalist Jennifer Vogel that is generally about her father, a counterfeiter in the 90s, Flag Day has all the earmarks of a vanity project, though not for Penn himself, who isn’t really on screen that much, but rather for his daughter, Dylan Penn, who plays Vogel as an adult (two other actors play her as a child and as a teenager). I have nothing against a famous father providing an opportunity for his child to prove her mettle in the same profession he has succeeded in, but by centering the action on Dylan’s performance rather than his, he inadvertently draws attention to himself, because in their scenes together she just can’t compare. 

Vogel grew up in a very volatile household: Her father, as she describes him, is a bred-in-the-bone “flim-flam man” and her mother an alcoholic who soon divorces him. Vogel spent much of her childhood and all of her adolescence shuttling back-and-forth between parents, neither of whom was prepared to devote any time to her; the mother (Katheryn Winnick) because she had already remarried and started a new family, and her father, John, constantly distracted by whatever illegal scam he was operating when he wasn’t serving time for arson or attempted robbery. Nevertheless, the script is structured in such a way that Vogel seems to be happiest when she’s with dad, whose penchant for the Big Lie is so obvious and prevalent that you wonder how Vogel would ever make it as a journalist, a vocation that requires a sharp radar for bullshit. Even John’s professed love of Chopin is framed as a con, shorthand for the kind of man he presented to the world. It didn’t fool his girlfriend (Bailey Noble), but seemed to convince his daughter. 

The main problem is that John is inherently unlikable and Sean Penn can still make him interesting because as an actor he’s fearless in depicting the worst human qualities, but in the requisite scenes of father-daughter strife that seem to reoccur like clockwork, Dylan Penn can’t keep up. Sean’s relentlessly hard-hitting direction only exacerbates this aspect, pumping oxygen into scenes that are already overextended dramatically. Flag Day tries to be a mordant study of middle American failure in the post-Reagan years, when the country’s sense of exceptionalism curdled into self-denial. In that regard, Sean Penn should have centered the whole movie on John, but then the script would have required an entirely different angle, and that wasn’t his purpose in covering this material in the first place.

Opens Dec. 23 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063).

Flag Day home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 VOCO Products, LLC

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