Following 2017’s The Last Face, Flag Day sees Sean Penn take up directing duties for his sixth feature film. Based on the novel ‘Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life’ by Jennifer Vogel, the film follows Jennifer and her larger than life father John. Throughout childhood, Jennifer worships her dad and the adventurous energy he brings to her, and her brother Nick’s lives, unaware that John is also a notorious counterfeiter, bank robber and con-man.
Opening in 1992, as Jennifer is confronted by the wreckage of yet another one of John’s failed schemes, the film then goes back in time to 1975 where the audience meets young Jennifer. This first act is rather scattershot as Penn throws everything at the screen. There is a mix of shaky handheld shots, moody close-ups and scene setting wides, all overseen by some unsubtle and overly poetic narration. Tonally, this feels slightly confusing as Flag Day tries hard to be both incredibly earnest as well as dark and evocative.
By the second act, both the cinematography and direction even out enough to let the audience invest into the story. The family element of the film is well aided by the real life filmmaking connection with Jennifer and Nick being played by Dylan Penn and Hopper Jack Penn respectively – Sean Penn’s own children. It is clear that Flag Day is an important story to the Penns, one that they obviously wanted to tell, and the film does come across as a labour of love for them. Unfortunately, this is at a slight detriment to the audience as this labour of love only serves to give Flag Day a very heavy-handed approach. The audience knows that they are supposed to care deeply about this story, only it is not necessarily quite clear why – why is this a story that Penn wanted so desperately to bring to the big screen? What makes it so important?
In spite of this heavy-handed approach, Flag Day does succeed in pulling on the audience’s heartstrings. Throughout proceedings, the significance of the relationship between a child and their parent shines through. There is a deep profundity behind this message and Flag Day is at its very best when the film forgets all the superfluous elements and instead simply concentrates on the love and hope between Jennifer and John.
Ultimately, Flag Day is not Penn’s worst directing endeavour, but it is certainly nowhere near his best either. The film is able to provide enough substance to enable audiences to go away with the always timely reminder that family is the most important thing in the world, however Flag Day is unlikely to be a film that audiences return to once that message is conveyed.
Crime, Drama | USA, 2021 | 15 | Cinema, Digital HD | 27th January 2022 (UK) | Vertigo Releasing | Dir.Sean Penn | Sean Penn, Dylan Penn, Josh Brolin, Eddie Marsan, Katheryn Winnick