Sean Penn’s first turn as director was 1991’s The Indian Runner, adapted from Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’, one of many sparse, haunting portrayals of working class agony on his masterpiece record Nebraska. In both the song and the film, two brothers on different sides of the law wrestle with the ties that bind, the burden of blood relations, and the lure of rebellion. ‘Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good’, Bruce sings. Like Bruce, Penn’s work is deeply concerned with Americana, the everyday struggle of regular folks and the sun-dappled nostalgia of hazy memories. The darkness at the heart of Springsteen’s work is his incessant questioning of the authenticity of those romantic, uniquely American notions – when his work really connects (as with Indian Runner, or his solid later effort Into the Wild), the same can be said of Penn.
Sean Penn’s latest turn behind the camera is also his first time directing himself, and is a suitably family-oriented affair, featuring central performances from both his children. It’s a warmly shot, deceptively simple father-daughter drama that, in its best moments, thrums with intimacy and a likeable, homemade quality.
There is more than a touch of the Springsteenian in Flag Day, Penn’s return to the director’s chair following the disastrous white-saviour romance The Last Face, which resulted in the most venomous reviews of his career. That immortal line from ‘Highway Patrolman’ was echoing around my head as I watched this film, which takes the true story of infamous con-man and money counterfeiter John Vogel (Sean Penn), and dives into the relationship between him and his daughter, journalist Jennifer Vogel – on whose book the film is based and whose eyes we see the story through. Jennifer is played by Sean Penn’s real-life daughter Dylan Penn, while Penn’s son Hopper plays Jennifer’s younger brother, directly linking the families together. It’s a fascinating subtext, and Penn largely shows disinterest in the older Vogel’s criminal exports, which largely dance around the periphery of the film, in favour of a two-hander between father and daughter.
As a largely untested performer anchoring the film, Dylan Penn proves a fiery, soulful presence, shining in scenes between her and her father, who is an intoxicating presence. Occasionally, Penn’s direction pulls her toward the melodramatic, which is a shame, as she’s so much more powerful underplaying. It’s a part of a film that is unapologetically classical in form and style – the film is simple, but that’s part of its power. Shot in dreamy 16mm film stock, occasionally intercut with Super 8mm footage, the film has an endearingly handmade feeling, occasionally evoking the feeling of the intimacy and melancholy of old home videos. It’s fair to say that the characterisation of Jennifer’s interiority is perhaps a little lacking – her movements in the film are entirely in thrall to her father’s waxing and waning affection – but to me it felt like a commentary on love withheld in parental figures, a feature less-than-effectively deployed, rather than a bug. Penn’s direction is strong, finding a vivacity and flair throughout that heightens this handmade feeling, which is the film’s greatest asset. It’s a film that forefronts the messy ways in which family can tear and wound the souls of its members, and the scar tissue that never fully heals. A messy, imperfect return to form for a filmmaker with the American myth in his sights.
Flag Day premieres Saturday 15 October at 8:30pm, only on Rialto Channel.
Movie title: Flag Day (Penn, 2021)
Movie description: Sean Penn’s latest turn behind the camera is also his first time directing himself, and is a suitably family-oriented affair, featuring central performances from both his children. It’s a warmly shot, deceptively simple father-daughter drama that, in its best moments, thrums with intimacy and a likeable, homemade quality.
Date published: October 13, 2022
Author: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Director(s): Sean Penn
Actor(s): Sean Penn, Dylan Frances Penn, Katheryn Winnick,
Genre: Crime, Drama