There's this old saying: “You can't polish a turd.” Someone (probably a grandparent; it's hard to beat cranky old people in the “brutal honesty” department) relayed that valuable piece of information to me at some point in my young life, and I've found it to be a crude but immutable truth, in art and fiction as much as in anything else. The best way I can describe Flag is to say that it's a great example of attempted turd polishing. It boasts a unique visual presentation and some downright incredible animation, but at the end of the day a weak narrative, poor cast, and muddled themes stick out from it like sore thumbs.
The story is this: In the near future, a civil war is erupting in a fictional country in Asia. Before the events of the series occur, photographer Saeko Shirasu takes a picture of a flag being lifted by the UN with help from citizens of the war-stricken nation. The photo becomes extremely famous; the flag itself becomes a symbol of peace. The UN steps in to mediate the civil war, and a date on which the major warring parties will sign a UN-sanctioned peace agreement overlooked by the legendary flag is approaching. However, just before the peace agreement is to be signed, the all-important flag is stolen by an unknown insurgent group. Without this symbol of peace in its possession, the UN fears that the peace agreement will ultimately fail, so they assign an elite group of special operatives to locate and retrieve the flag. Shirasu agrees to be an embedded photographer and document the group's search for the flag. While she's doing that, a friend of hers (also a photographer) is keeping an eye on the increasingly tense situation in the country's UN-occupied capital.
At this point you're probably asking questions in the vein of “if the flag is so important that they're risking lives to locate it, why wasn't it heavily guarded in the first place?” But I digress.
Flag's story is told with a film making technique called “found footage,” meaning that the series is presented to us as being raw, unedited footage of events that someone taped in the past with a handheld camera. This technique has existed for a while but was popularized in the late 90s with the success of films like “The Last Broadcast” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Flag shows everything either through the lens of a camera or the display of a computer, and goes to great lengths to maintain this illusion. Whenever the cast enters a vehicle, for example, the locations of the cameras on the vehicle are pointed out to the audience, so that we don't wonder where exactly the footage of different angles is coming from. In addition, you can tell the two main characters apart based on the differing electronic displays of their cameras, allowing the series to switch back and forth between plot threads without much of a hitch. I think that's neat. The whole setup does require a certain suspension of disbelief; I don't think a photographer would use their computer's webcam to film themselves typing, or leave their camera running while sitting around drinking coffee with a friend in a Starbucks.
The reason for using this style of filming is that it's honest. We see only what the camera sees, and hear only what the camera hears. That leaves us free to make up our minds about what we're seeing on our own. No external influences, such as a character's thoughts, affect our judgment. Depending on how it's used, this property could be seen as a strength or a weakness, and in Flag, it's definitely the latter. Dramas like Flag survive on swaying the emotions of the audience, so one might question how wise it is to use a style of presentation which creates distance between the audience and the events of the drama. In Flag, I don't think it was wise at all. There isn't a single conversation in the series that doesn't feel cold, empty, forced. And that's at least partially a result of this stylistic decision.
The other problem with the way that Flag's story is told is that, quite simply, it's boring. Flag is an endless montage of interviews, computer simulations, and narrative monologues played over still images. We're shown grainy photographs of the harsh reality of life in this country, political and religious doctrines are explained at length, and we watch the military perform long, tedious tests of its soldiers and their futuristic weapons. All of this is out of respect for realism, and I can appreciate that, but it takes over the series to the point where I almost forgot there was an actual plot buried in there somewhere. The series has strong sequences, but they're few and far between. For every genuinely rewarding moment in Flag, there are fifty that are empty and directionless. Several episodes begin with unnecessary recaps that sometimes stretch for as long as three and a half minutes. It's draining to watch this series. I have a pretty big reserve of patience, and it ran out long before I reached Flag's conclusion.
The characters aren't much better. The main character, Shirasu, is shown to be a little insecure and lonely. She's trying to figure out what exactly she wants to do with her skills as a photographer. She gains a bit of depth as she gradually becomes more comfortable with her role in the squad of soldiers she's been assigned to film, and moves from feeling like an outsider to being accepted. Unfortunately, the soldiers themselves are nowhere near as fleshed out as Shirasu. They're cardboard cutouts at best, bordering on outright stereotypes. There's a tough blonde female commanding officer, a big Russian strongman-esque pilot, an intelligent young Asian woman with glasses who does computer work...the list of seen-them-befores goes on. The show botches several opportunities to turn the cast into something more memorable. For example, in a series of interviews, Shirasu asks the soldiers about their personal reasons for choosing this line of work. Just when I thought I might get to hear them say something interesting, the responses came back, all empty one-line platitudes: “I fight for my family,” “I fight to save people,” “I fight for my country,” etc. Real nice. Apparently everyone's reasons for risking their lives come from recruitment posters they saw in their local middle school. We can eventually discern a little bit more about the cast based on how they react in discussions about military protocol and battle, but they're still too flat to be a source of any real drama or interest.
Thematically, Flag is more than a little confused, and doesn't seem to know what it wants to say at all. Originally I thought the series was going to be about photography: The value of an iconic image, the ability of the photographer to capture the past, breaking the barrier between being an observer and a participant, risking yourself for your art. Flag brings up all these themes, but utterly fails to elaborate on them or make any sort of real statement. Which is too bad, because those are all relatively original ideas. In addition, as Flag goes on, the focus shifts from themes of photography to general antiwar sentiment. This isn't bad in and of itself, but it's nothing we haven't seen before, and Flag doesn't bring anything new to this theme. Images of children with guns, civilians killed or displaced by indiscriminate bombing, masked terrorists taking to the streets...these images can be powerful when infused with the right amount of emotion, but on their own accord, they ceased to be shocking and new to most of us a long time ago, and they're now fairly commonplace in our media, both fiction and nonfiction. Flag presents them in an emotionless manner that doesn't bring anything new to the table. They're cliches, to put it simply. The result of all of this is that it's tough to say with certainty what Flag is even supposed to be about. If it was meant to be about photography, they should have taken out the deluge of trite antiwar content. If it was meant to be a statement against warfare, they should have taken out the commentary on the nature of photography. If it was meant to be both, they should have hired some better writers.
Two elements of Flag that I can truly compliment are the art and animation. The background art is well detailed, with wide expanses of desert and mountains looking about as close to real life as possible. The city, likewise, is an appropriately drawn maze of housing. Say what you will about Flag (and I've said a lot), but it doesn't slack on creating a setting. However, it's in mechanical design and animation that the series really shines. The show, set in the near future, prominently features some military mecha in the battles, and these look unbelievably good. The series captures the motions of vehicles more realistically than any I've ever seen; every moving part seems to function with the perfectly regimented order typical of machines.
Unfortunately, the music is another downer for Flag. The first problem with the musical score is that it exists. No, seriously; since Flag is presented to us as a collection of images and raw footage found in numerous video cameras, the fact that there is any background music at all works against the original concept of the series. The second problem with the music is how typical it is. Some of it's Middle Eastern sounding, lead by traditional drums and wind instruments, sometimes with wordless vocals, sometimes without. The other half of it is more Western, spearheaded by horns and crashing drums. It's generic and not at all memorable, and if you've seen any film about war in exotic nations, you've pretty much heard this music. What's worse than that, it's sometimes so ridiculously overbearing that it's unintentionally comical. Why is there a booming, uplifting patriotic song playing while the main character huddles helplessly in the fetal position to avoid being killed by shrapnel? The mind boggles. The most tense moments of Flag are actually those accompanied by either silence, or light atmospheric noise. In one memorable sequence, we hear nothing but a pilot's shallow, unsteady breathing alternating with the roar of her vehicle's minigun as she kills a group of insurgents. This conveys both her hesitation and dislike of killing, and her determination to get her job done even if it means doing something she dislikes; it tells us far more than any patriotic music could. Flag would have been well served to rely more on the atmosphere and setting that it went to such great lengths to create, rather than on some very heavy-handed music.
When all is said and done, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Flag to anyone but a select group of people. I actually give it a lot of points—probably way more points than I should—for its visual originality. So if you are actively searching for something that is unique in its visual style, then Flag is definitely worth a bit of your time; if nothing else, it's a good looking show. But if you're the average person, wanting to be entertained and/or informed by a series with a strong plot, and you're looking at Flag with curiosity, rest assured that your curiosity has been evoked under false pretenses. Flag's method of storytelling, and its cast, are exceedingly poor efforts. Its themes are a miasma of generic antiwar sentiment and undeveloped artistic ideas which play a dysfunctional game of tag with each other during the running time of the series. A domineering musical score that browbeats the entire concept of the show is the last nail in the coffin of mediocrity. On the outside, Flag is about as polished as you can get, but on the inside...well, refer to paragraph one.