“The Land of Opportunity” is a phrase often used in reference to America, but what exactly does that mean? What is an “opportunity” in that context? An idealistic person would say that it means everyone has a chance to make a name for themselves here, that a better life is guaranteed within the borders of these 50 states. A realist, on the other hand, would argue that opportunity is less about chance and more about status: In order to have an opportunity present itself, one must first come from a higher class or have some assistance from someone who does. For John Vogel (Sean Penn), the swindling charlatan at the center of Flag Day, “The Land of Opportunity” means something else completely: It’s not about chance, and it’s not about class. It’s about writing one’s own success story by any means necessary.
From borrowing cash he can never repay to robbing banks in broad daylight in a shoddy disguise to printing counterfeit money by the millions, Vogel never met a scheme he hasn’t tried on at least one occasion. Of course, to him, they aren’t schemes — they’re just business opportunities, wide open for the taking, and he is nothing more than the lowly entrepreneur who’s willing to take them. The irony of Vogel’s birthday just so happening to coincide with Flag Day, the oft-forgotten American holiday that falls just a few weeks before the much more notable Independence Day, is not lost on the people who know him (and his desperate antics) best. His unorthodox view of the world is the perfect analogy to this less conventional patriotic celebration.
Incredibly, John Vogel has a wife and children who depend on him. This provides something of an explanation for his frantic behavior, but certainly not an excuse. Time after time, honest work presents itself to Vogel, and time after time, he proves he’d rather put all his time and energy into a con instead of a day job. Being a liar and a cheat is in his blood. Thankfully for his daughter, Jennifer (Dylan Penn), it doesn’t seem to be hereditary. Maybe this is why John has no problem abandoning her and her brother, Nick (Hopper Jack Penn), for years at a time: They come from him, but they aren’t anything like him. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to have a relationship with him, though. Spanning a stretch of 17 years, opening with the police chasing down Vogel in 1992 before jumping back to 1975 and working its way forward again, Flag Day profiles the fleeting interactions between father and children during the most formative years of their lives (and the darkest of his).
Flag Day marks the first of Penn’s six directorial efforts to date in which the actor also stars. This proves to be a mistake, one that quickly becomes glaringly obvious whenever the film begins to dig deeper into John’s persona instead of working to build up Jennifer’s. Penn is not only miscast due his age and his looks — which are supposed to be passing for those of a man in his early 40s — but also because his real-life daughter is playing his fictional child. This results in a film that spends far too much time on the supposedly transient patriarch — a supporting character on paper — and not enough time on the alleged main character, Jennifer. Penn has been acting and directing for decades now and daughter Dylan has several acting credits that precede Flag Day, so it feels wrong to outright label the film a product of vanity or nepotism when their paths could have hypothetically crossed at any time in their professional lives, but such criticisms are undoubtedly going to be lobbed at it nonetheless (and they aren’t totally illegitimate, either).
In fairness, some blame belongs on the shoulders of the script, penned by English playwright-turned-screenwriter Jez Butterworth. Butterworth is typically quite strong — his surprisingly memorable screenplays for Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Ford v Ferrari (2019) elevate what very easily could have been a couple of pieces of soulless studio filmmaking in pursuit of franchise potential or awards-season accolades — but his work on Flag Day is not on par with his usual output. Adapted from the book Flim-Flam Man, the real Jennifer Vogel’s account of her relationship with her father, it’s very possible that this story just isn’t suited for the screen. This is underlined by a few of the film’s key features: an over-reliance on poetic narration; a sporadic, time-hopping narrative; and too much focus on John for the film to credibly insist that the story is Jennifer’s.
By the film’s close, Jennifer — who, for all intents and purposes, is the lead of Flag Day — feels significantly less developed than John, her foil. The viewer knows his motivations, they understand why he does what he does, but the same cannot be said for her. As a result, nearly everything she does feels unwarranted, incomprehensible, or uncharacteristic. This is unfortunate for Dylan, because there are signs she’s more than capable of effectively channeling the skills she has inherited from her father Sean and her mother Robin Wright. It’s a shame to see talent squandered at every level of the production — from the performances to the writing to the direction — because everyone involved deserves better than the anomaly that is Flag Day.
Flag Day is now playing in select theaters.