AT THE MOVIES: Don’t celebrate Sean Penn’s Flag Day

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
John Vogel (Sean Penn) is in and out of jail for his shady dealings in "Flag Day."

I’m not sure what director Sean Penn wanted to accomplish with Flag Day, but I sure know what movies he wanted to emulate. Flag Day has the relentless obvious needle drops of a Robert Zemeckis movie, the gratuitous slow-motion of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and instance of such abrasive shaky-cam that Paul Greengrass would tell him to tone things down. Flag Day won’t fail to remind you of other movies and filmmakers but it does come up short in crafting any sense of identity for its own characters.  

Flag Day begins with flashbacks to the childhood of Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn), who conveys in voiceover how her father was like Peter Pan in how he could make “the most ill-advised decision seems like the result of careful planning.” It’s just the beginning of the film leaning heavily on narration and didactic dialogue when it could just let imagery do the talking. Jennifer’s life is full of hardship, with her mom being an alcoholic and her dad, John (Sean Penn), being a schemer. He puts on airs of being attentive but is always in over his head in criminal activities. Once Jennifer grows up into a teenager, she returns to her dad and tries to rehabilitate him just as she’s trying to get her life off the ground. But her dad keeps falling back into old habits, which eventually involves robbing a bank, which only creates more distance between himself and Jennifer.  

Outlining Flag Day’s story like that, it occurs to me that I don’t really know what the point of this movie is. What are we supposed to take away from watching Jennifer’s life? My biggest takeaway was that this poor woman had been through so much abuse, which the movie never properly grapples with. It’s hard to pinpoint much of a broader purpose to the narrative, beyond it serving as a two hour explanation for why Jennifer’s lie-filled upbringing influenced her decision to become a career pursuing the truth as an investigative journalist. 

A teenage Jennifer (Dylan Penn, right) drives with dad John (Sean Penn) in "Flag Day."

Movies don’t need to inherently have a reason for existing but Flag Day offers so little to chew on that I found myself wondering what the point of the exercise was. Small flourishes, such as lingering on a speech given by Bill Clinton on TV, suggest the thematic intent is to explore how men erase the agencies or perspectives of women, but that doesn't get explored anywhere near enough to serve as the project's thesis. The individual characters, meanwhile, are so thinly-sketched that the script (adapted from the true story of the actual Jennifer Vogel) never functions on its own terms as just a standalone character piece. 

Conflict only emerges in Flag Day through oversized shouting matches that are straining to be used as clips for potential Oscar nominations. All this shallow noise makes for an extra frustrating movie since there are hints of a better movie in here. Occasionally, Penn tells what’s on-screen through the eyes of Jennifer, such as her lying awake in her bed as a kid overhearing her mom talk about her dad. Going this route for the entire story could’ve been interesting and lent actual uncertainty to the story. When her dad tries to convince her he didn’t actually rob a bank, we could be as conflicted as Jennifer and better understanding her complicated feelings towards her dad. 

Sean Penn, left, and Dylan Penn pose for portraits at the Cannes Film Festival last month, where "Flag Day" had its world premiere.

At least Flag Day reminded me of just how good Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was. That autobiographical graphic novel explores  the complicated dynamic between Bechdel and her own father, a closeted gay man. The finer nuances of their relationship, reflected in moments like Bechdel trying to initiate a conversaiton about queerness after she comes out of the closet, capture the up's, the down's, and everything in between of loving someone but also being so frustrated with them. It isn't easy to break down how we feel towards family members...but you wouldn't know it from watching Flag Day. Its title may refer to a holiday all about the American flag, but the movie Flag Day is actually about waving a white flag in the face of saying someting complicated or real about father/daughter relationships.  

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.