It’s the near future, and the war on terror has escalated following a terrorist attack in Los Angeles. To replace the dwindling ranks of troops fighting abroad, the American government has decided to reinstate the draft.
That’s the premise of Day Zero, the intermittently interesting but deeply flawed feature debut from Bryan Gunner Cole. Following three childhood friends who discover they have 30 days before they must report for duty, the movie tackles many of the misgivings and questions Americans have about the Iraq war as each character decides whether or not he will actually enlist. Though it’s not nearly as talky or obvious as it could have been, Day Zero presents characters as concepts rather than actual people, and deals much more with the theoretical consequences of war rather than the actual human toll.
Among the friends we have Aaron (Elijah Wood), a wimpy novelist terrified by but attracted to the machismo of war; George (Chris Klein), a high-powered attorney whose commitment to his career and his wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) make him hell-bent on avoiding service; and Dixon (Jon Bernthal), a cab driver devoted to serving his country, even though a new romance may inspire him to have second thoughts.
We meet each of the characters at the moment they open their draft notices, so we learn very little about their lives before the armed forces came to their doors. Setting aside the fact that three men at such wildly different socioeconomic levels would rarely be friends in real life, the rapport among the three of them is largely believable. The problem is that they don’t get much to talk about other than the war. In the same way that Crash shot itself in the foot by being exclusively about racial tensions instead of about characters, Day Zero limits its focus so much that it leave little room to get to know our draftees.
Aaron, in particular, is the biggest enigma. He makes regular visits to a therapist (played by onetime ’80s teen star Ally Sheedy, oddly enough) who is so inattentive that she does a crossword during his sessions. Would any sane person, regardless of their insecurities, really keep visiting a therapist who is so unprofessional? She encourages him to make a “top ten” list of things he wants to do before leaving for war; his buddies justifiably rib him for including “drink ten shots of whiskey,” but his other goals to have sex with a prostitute and see a peep show go unquestioned. What are Aaron’s sexual hang-ups, and what in particular do they have with his desires to go to war?
George and Dixon fare a little better, though Klein is as wooden here as he’s been in every other movie, and Bernthal’s character is a bit too pure and good to fully evolve as a real person. Not only does he live in a spectacular Williamsburg loft on a cab driver’s salary, he is a surrogate parent to a young girl in the building and is there at every moment, day or night, to save his friends from trouble. His blooming romance is tender and realistic, and Bernthal is the most appealing actor of the bunch, but Dixon’s dedication to fighting the war seems more like an ideological bullet point than a real set of opinions.
Most important, Robert Malkani’s screenplay never considers the fundamental changes that would occur in the country were the draft reinstated, not to mention were another major terrorist attack to occur. General consensus today says that renewing the draft would effectively end the Iraq war, as opposition would increase tenfold; aside from a small protest at the end of the film, though, we never see serious opposition to the draft’s very existence. Nor do we see the increased security, propaganda and overall atmosphere of fear that would doubtlessly occur in this scenario. For a movie that strives for realism, shot on digital and full of handheld shots, the details of this alternative world are surprisingly bare.
In a time filled with war movie after war movie, Day Zero has remarkably little to add to the debate despite its unique premise. It features fine character moments and some decent acting, but the overall package feels like a well-produced student film without much to say.