Credit: Allen Fraser/MGM
by Morris Yang Featured Film Spotlight

Flag Day | Sean Penn

August 21, 2021

Flag Day’s aesthetic cribbing and histrionic character result in a floundering film that feels too desperate by half.

The realm of biography occupies an uneasy position between narration and narrativization; its sweeping strokes complement and contradict personal undercurrents in equal measure, and it is frequently this unintentional dialectic that separates the groundbreaking from delusions of grandeur. For all the haughty demands that the viewer appraise and be enthralled by its subject’s life and times, biography largely assumes an inoffensive position in its undertaking, consigned to moderately favorable (if sporadically critical) review; minus the output of egomaniacs and political institutions, or the rigor evinced through academic revisionism, the standard-bearer remains unreservedly traditional in adapting, whether for print or for projection, most stories, narratives, and histories of individuals and their cultural backdrops. The latest venture from the famously scorned Sean Penn appears to fall in line with this understanding. Flag Day shies away from metafiction’s most grating properties and retains on balance a loyalty to its American ideological heritage, having been adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life, a memoir spanning two decades and tracing its author’s attempts at piecing together fragmented and obfuscated memories of her father. This avoidance of self-reflexivity doesn’t explicitly speak to any strengths or weaknesses — just as self-aware mumblecore usually tumbles into circularity despite announcing its “intelligence,” while  more earnest, celebratory works, conversely, can often articulate refreshing sincerity — and, in Penn’s case, hardly matters. Instead, a much heftier existential problem plagues Flag Day, a problem less thematic and more stylistic.

Perhaps this might comfort and confound the unfortunate followers of the director’s filmography, which has produced one of recent memory’s most reviled productions; and, just like The Last Face before it, Flag Day ended up five years later in competition at Cannes, sliding into an obligatory prestige slot that brazenly rejected worthier titles such as Kira Kovalenko’s Unclenching the Fists and Arthur Harari’s Onoda — 10,000 Nights in the Jungle from well-deserved recognition. Where the star-crossed escapades of Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron renewed, through juxtaposition with Third World Africa’s generalized war-torn landscapes, the First World’s implicitly colonialist savior complex, Penn’s follow-up to that fiasco (which allegedly compelled the festival not to hold press screenings before official premieres ever since) shifts its lens away from ethnic relations and trains it onto national identity, potentially parrying one set of criticisms only to invite another. All the same, little nationalism overtly undergirds its premise and execution; in fact, one could almost read Flag Day as a scathing deconstruction of the sense of masculine individualism which emerged after the economic stagnation of the 1970s and ushered in the Reagan administration’s military and cultural interventions in the forms of Rambo and Afghanistan. Starring himself as Flim-Flam Man’s titular father, John Vogel, Penn plays a weathered and unshaven man with a mystery, alongside his own daughter, Dylan Penn, who takes on the memoirist’s role. John is by all accounts no family man, having disappeared in long stretches for most of Jennifer’s childhood, and although he insists on maintaining a semblance of both authority and geniality, the latter’s disillusionment and frustration quickly accrue into an aching numbness that divides the duo not just on generational lines, but also in terms of social standing. Where she heads to university in pursuit of a journalism degree, he ends up between years of little stints and heists in prison, tormented by his failure as a father and role model but compelled by unyielding pride and addiction to continue down this ill-trod path.

Jennifer’s picture of her father, then, appears thinly sketched and deceptively remembered, languishing in a psychological chiaroscuro of glowing nostalgia and adolescent antipathy, hazily strung together by romantic voiceover and MTV cuts whose discrete sequences effectively bud gnostic sentimentalism by virtue of their loose imitations of virtuosity. But Penn is no Malick, and even more certainly no Tarkovsky; the transcendence he seeks through character study flops because the study in question purports to embellish rather than enunciate character. This embellishment comes forth in arguably the most vexatious of ways: for a majority of its sequences, Flag Day overloads on histrionics, hoarding as emotional ammunition its dozen screaming matches and lost tempers, and confusing good acting with a lot of acting. Reminiscent of Ron Howard’s similarly torpid Hillbilly Elegy, the film employs Penn Jr.’s impassioned tirades as spiritual complement to Amy Adams’ perpetually mercurial psychology, but where a case might be made of Howard’s screenwriting as intended allegory for polarization (between hillbilly and urbanite, traditional and contemporary), Penn Sr. displays no such inclination, at least when it comes to his daughter’s decidedly humanist foregrounding. (Cue the charges of nepotism, as they aren’t exactly unfounded.) Though initially inviting more charitable interpretations of its intent — a field of wheat at dusk, silhouettes dancing in the distance, an image and milieu frozen — Flag Day unsheathes its arsenal at first light to reveal staggering incompetence on the counts of both general direction and specific artistry. Character motivation is scant to none, forgivable on John’s side but impermissible as Jennifer is concerned. The aesthetic idiosyncrasies of its shots conjure a somewhat curious but mostly off-putting hybrid of music video, corporate advertisement, and chronological suspension of belief, punctuated only once or twice with flashes of more-than-competent choreography. Most damningly, its autumnal filters appear pre-fabricated from libraries of Hallmark titles whose emotional beats rarely feel the need to amplify sturdy drama into sniveling melodrama.

It also bears noting that no such holiday as Flag Day exists, and that Flag Day’s fictionalization of such an event within its perimeter comes as an ostensible stand-in for Independence Day, a celebration of American liberty that also doubles as John’s birthday. The film’s conflation of man with nation, then, raises some intriguing questions about its cultural signification: does Penn recognize the stubborn macho illusion his character embodies, of the gun-toting outlaw’s heroism hedged against the swindler’s dishonor? Or rather, does the illusion recognize the persistent yet malleable ideal of freedom within? Unfortunately, the second option seems to prevail, not least with Penn’s own presence serving as sincere self-aggrandizement, and especially given his pronounced wardrobe changes over the film’s twenty years (sporting grey hair and sunglasses, the aged counterfeiter channels late-period De Niro quite reverently). But also because Penn can’t act, at least not within the traditional sense of good acting; his caricatural skits and half-hearted pronouncements shift between sharp barks and lazy drawls, highlighting an insecurity belonging less to John Vogel and more to a filmmaker who continues to court controversy (or, more accurately of late, critical hostility) while simultaneously remaining clueless of his craft beyond the art of aping his national forebears. And so, Flag Day stutters with the cringeworthy ebullience of a hormonal virgin on his first date: eager to impress, but equally, if not more so, depleted of wit and charm. You might not flee the scene, but it’s tough not to balk at the sheer delusion in front of you.