Sean Penn returns with Flag Day, a heartfelt and soulful drama that suffered from a muted US release, partly due to the on-going pandemic, but also because Penn’s up-to-his-armpits integrity is decidedly out of sync with today’s cinema. Hopefully, he couldn’t care less about that, since Penn has always been a film-maker whose fashionability has been co-incidental to his work; recent projects like Gunman and The Last Face have missed the mark, but Flag Day sees Penn evoke the tough but compassionate form that made his directorial name, as well as giving him a choice role as an actor. With Cyrano, Morbius and other films abruptly dropping from the UK’s January schedule, Flag Day might just catch a break and connect with the audience it deserves.
Based on Jennifer Vogel’s autobiographical book Flim–Flam Man: A True Family History, this is a lyrical, compassionate movie about the consequences of crime, and the legacy that we pass to our children. Penn’s own daughter Dylan Penn plays Jennifer Vogel, whose card is marked from day-one by the life-choices made by her erratic-to-say-the-least father, played by Penn. John Vogel is a criminal whose activities led directly to the fourth biggest seizure of counterfeit bills in US law enforcement history. But as a kid in 1992, Jennifer just thrilled that her dad allows her control of his car, and to press the pedals for herself, although this rule-breaking euphoria doesn’t last as her father’s crimes and personal misdemeanours catch up with them both…
We are obsessed with crime, the labelling of criminals, and the punishment we demand for them; not all our criminals are currently in jail. Flag Day gives voice to one of John’s collateral damage victims, someone he stole something more valuable than money from, and Dylan Penn does a terrific job of embodying how that bitter-sweet sentiment might play out. Running from and towards her father, Jennifer Vogel struggles to make her life her own, even when the choices open to her are distorted by her dad’s legacy. Penn is digitally de-aged for the early scenes, but when he returns to the present-day narrative, brings gravity to the eventual father-daughter confrontation which is searing to watch.
Flag Day isn’t for everyone, it’s small in scope, and intense in delivery; fresh from their collaboration on Ford v Ferrari aka Le Mans 66, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script is about real people rather than awards-friendly-novelties or virtue-signalling. This film should be of interest to anyone interested in the state of the US right now, where enjoying the spoils of short-term confidence trickery seems to be the norm, and the influence of our elders seems to be setting things down the wrong path for several generations to come. As heartfelt and honest as a Bruce Springsteen song, Flag Day is a genuine return to the early directorial form of The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard for Penn, and well worth seeking out for those who remember the trauma of stepping out of the parental shadow.
Vertigo Releasing presents Flag Day in UK cinemas and on digital from 28 January 2022.