John Vogel doesn’t appear to be a particularly well-known or infamous figure in this country. He is, however, reportedly one of America’s most notorious counterfeiters. With Flag Day, Sean Penn stars in and directs a tale primarily focused on Vogel’s relationship with his daughter, the now-successful journalist Jennifer (Dylan Penn). Working from a screenplay by Jez Butterworth (Skyfall, Le Mans ’66) we drop in on their story periodically from 1975 to 1992.
With a short prologue set what turns out to be after the events of the film in 1992, Jennifer is learning from a police officer, played by Regina King, of the full scale of her father’s final crime – the counterfeiting of US currency, the shock on her face indicates the film to follow will find a daughter who never truly comes to know her father to the degree she desires.
READ MORE: Boris Karloff: The Man Behind The Monster – Documentary Review
After this, we pick up in 1975. John is married with two children. Jennifer has a younger brother (portrayed as an adult by Sean’s real-life son, and Dylan’s brother Hopper Penn) Nick. Their mother, Patty, is portrayed by Katheryn Winnick. At this point they are young children, in a family unit that is not functioning at all well. John has Jennifer drive (at the age of around 10) when he finds himself tired and (possibly) the worse for wear on a long journey, whilst John and Patty are constantly arguing. With their father something of a hero at this point to his children, they are devastated when he leaves the house, unexpectedly not to return.
We drop in on them a few times in the years to follow. The first time, still as young children, they spend the summer with their father and his new partner, after their relationship with their mother takes a nosedive. From Jennifer’s perspective, we can see that John is involved with some shady characters with their first stay with them (which Jennifer assumed to be a permanent arrangement) ending after her father is clearly beaten by some of his associates (happening off-screen as this story is told entirely from her perspective, and this is not something she ever saw). A later journey to her father, now single happens later in her teens, when her new step-father – seemingly suffering from alcoholism – makes sexual advances upon her. This visit ends when John is arrested for a bank robbery, something about which he refuses to be honest with his daughter. Prior to this he had attempted to find decent employment, but this ends in more lies, as John always takes the path of least resistance.
In her father’s absence, Jennifer’s life goes off the rails. She drops out of school, gets involved with drugs, and ends up living a nomadic existence, leading her not to receive, for many years, the hundreds of letters her father writes her from prison. A good deal of the film’s second act deals with Jennifer’s attempts to overcome her poor start in life, her notorious family name, and her undistinguished school record, in order to try to enter the World of journalism. The final act deals with a freshly released John attempting to reconcile with his daughter, as she slowly learns that his presenting of himself as both reformed and successful, masks more untruths and – worse – complete fantasies about his life and what he can offer his daughter.
In casting his own children in the role, Penn clearly leaves himself open to suggestions of nepotism. Though we should remember that Francis Ford Coppola was not shy in having his family involved in all of the Godfather films, and, with one exception, those decisions all paid off. Similar is true here. The family ties feel so much more authentic when we see Sean Penn interacting with the spitting image of the young Robin Wright – Dylan’s mother – and this is not distracting in the way it could have been. More than this, Dylan proves to be an outstanding actress, a talent for whom the sky is the limit. Despite Sean’s name being the marquee one, Flag Day is 100% Jennifer’s story, and Dylan Penn gives an exceptional performance.
READ MORE: Belfast – Film Review
At 108 minutes, the film could probably be tightened a little, as shots and scenes tend to linger, but Penn has produced an elegant, beautifully shot film, for which credit must be given to cinematographer Daniel Moder. Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be given to the film, is that it was not until the very end of the film that it was clear that this was based upon a true story, as it was not remotely obvious that John Vogel was a real-life notorious figure. That’s because Flag Day is not about John, it is about a father and his daughter, and in the way the story is constructed we see only what she does.
The gaps we all have in our understanding and knowledge of our parents are all reflected in the telling of this tale. It is held back from greatness by its pacing and its tendency to melodrama. At its worst it can resemble a TV film, but it is all shot and performed with such quality that this was only an occasional thought, though this will be a deal-breaker for some viewers. Whilst it is entirely necessary that we don’t really know John, it can lead to his feeling something of an archetype rather than a person, in places. That said, this is a terrific, thoughtful piece of work, complemented by a well-chosen soundtrack, and elevated by outstanding performances.