Celebrated actor but unproven director Sean Penn has of late been bruised by appearances at Cannes, where his work behind the camera has been harshly critiqued, even mocked. Unfortunately, it appears Flag Day offers no respite, with French audiences largely unimpressed by his attempt at a New Hollywood-style crime caper. Though that doesn’t mean there aren’t some aspects of Flag Day worth remarking on – or even that it’s a bad movie, per se.
Starring Penn himself as real-life fraudster and dad-of-two Johnny Vogel, Flag Day is told from the perspective of his journalist daughter Jennifer (Dylan Penn). From a young child, Jennifer idolises her worldly father without ever quite understanding where he gets his money. As a teen she spots him smoking weed and snorting coke. But a compulsive liar who could compete in a world championship at chutzpah, Johnny denies any naughtiness. Jennifer puts up with him anyway, in part compelled by a cold relationship with mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick). Younger brother Nick (Hopper Penn) doesn’t know where to put himself, and suffers. But Nick’s experiences are left underexplored; like numerous characters, he fades as soon as Jennifer’s story moves on, which it frequently does.
Neil’s fate applies to far too many characters in Flag Day. Skilled actors Josh Brolin, Regina King and Eddie Marsan share a small handful of scenes between them – and fewer lines. Presumably they’re calling in a favour to buddy Sean, but he hasn’t repaid them with any notable dialogue.
This is an error as much as a design flaw. By trying to tell an epic and old-fashioned story of American crime over decades within 110 minutes, Penn stretches his script, his actors and his directorial skills to insurmountable lengths. Flag Day contains a genuinely moving story about a father and his daughter, and the lies we tell ourselves to explain away laziness. But it’s puffed up with so much else, it’s doomed to do an incomplete job. In the same way American Gangster was forced to pack in an ending information scroll as eventful as the movie which preceded it, Flag Day is overextended by the sheer amount of story it’s forced to reckon with. At least American Gangster chose a part of the events to focus on, rather than attempting it all at once.
Which is all not to say Flag Day is even a poor film. Penn is a decent director whose preference for film pays off. There’s nothing clinical or crisp about this film and there shouldn’t be. Dylan Penn is solid in the lead role. Watching Jennifer go from precocious kid to dogged investigative journalist adult is a compelling arc. Sean himself does a decent Jack Nicholson impression: half sleaze, half something worse. And the aforementioned gallery of supporting actors make for some pleasantly effective subplot scenes.
But Flag Day isn’t very good either, certainly not good enough to salvage Penn’s reputation as a director on the Croisette. That shouldn’t matter much to most audiences, though for the next day or so that’s the topic of conversation, rather than the strengths of his film.