Judge Clark Douglas is a draft dodger.
Drafted…30 Days to Report for Duty. What Would You Do?
If the United States had been attacked again after the horrible events of September 11th, 2001, what would have happened? Would we have reinstated the draft and sent millions of young men overseas to do battle in Afghanistan and Iraq? Day Zero imagines how such a decision might impact our nation.
Facts of the Case
We take a look at this situation from a fairly intimate perspective, examining the lives of three friends living in New York City. There's George (Chris Klein, American Dreamz), a married lawyer and son of a senator who has very strong objections about the war. On the opposite side of the spectrum is James (Jon Bernthal, World Trade Center), a rough but good-hearted guy who wants nothing more than to go fight for his country. Somewhere in the middle is Aaron (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), who is just plain nervous about the prospect of going to war.
Much like the little-seen Canadian film Last Night, Day Zero uses a fictional yet plausible situation to examine how people of the modern age might respond to that situation. As the day of departure grows closer, the three friends react in different ways and try to find ways (some quite extreme) to deal with their fears and objections. George's internal despair seems to rise quite quickly, and before long, he finds himself attempting to chop off his fingers or visit gay bars as a means of trying to get off the hook. James oddly embarks upon a romantic relationship, without telling the girl that he is about to go to war. Aaron, evidently taking some inspiration from The Bucket List, makes a list of 10 things he needs to do before he goes to war. The list begins with such simple things as "drinking ten shots of whiskey in a row" and slowly progresses into more dangerous stuff.
This is a potentially compelling concept, and I think it's one that really could have worked. However, it frustratingly never manages to work past simplistic predictability. There are a lot of conversations about war here, and they all recycle time-worn talking points endlessly. "We have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here," "We're taking innocent lives," "We have to defend American freedom because freedom isn't free," "War is frightening and confusing," and so on. There are a lot of thoughtful conversations in the movie, but when the subject matter is war, the script tries much too hard not to offend anyone and simply winds up spewing clichés.
Also a bit difficult to swallow are the journeys these characters take. Chris Klein has never been a particularly good actor, and there are quite a few key moments here that turn embarrassing due to his lack of ability. In particular, I'm thinking of a ranting hate speech inside the gay bar, a very poorly-executed moment. Jon Bernthal chooses to play his character as something of an ignorant lug and always seems to be searching for the appropriate mix of idiocy and lovability for the character. The characters are not meant to be confident, but the performers should be able to find the right tone. This is the sort of film that I'd be curious to hear a commentary on, to get some perspective on what kind of political points the filmmakers and actors were striving to make. Alas, there's absolutely nothing on the DVD aside from a few trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The best acting turn (perhaps predictably) comes from Elijah Wood. He starts by making Aaron a character that resembles a low-key, soulful Woody Allen and then slowly but surely turns him into Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. It's a funny and frightening performance that sells us a character that would have been terribly unconvincing in the hands of many actors. Wood is the film's biggest asset in every way. Yes, he brings a small level of star power to the proceedings, but he also adds some much-needed humor in a few scenes that keeps the film from becoming a preachy bore. One can't help but laugh watching Wood look at himself in a mirror…"Look at this. I'm somehow fat and skinny at the same time. How is that possible?" Even as he descends down a dark road, he keeps that humor intact, and when it disappears, we realize that we have lost him. The fact that we like his character so much goes a long way toward allowing us to feel startled by some of his actions later in the film.
For all the little moments in the film that don't work, there are almost an equal number of moments that do. The more explosive moments and emotional outbursts tend to fall flat, but there are a few scenes that really stuck with me. I liked the scenes that James shared with his girlfriend. For that matter, I liked all the scenes that the characters shared with the women in their lives, giving us some engaging perspective on how a loved one might react. George and his wife (Ginnifer Goodwin, Big Love) have some nice moments, and there are some strangely engaging scenes between Aaron and his extremely unhelpful psychiatrist (Ally Sheedy, Short Circuit).
The film is well-shot by Matthew Clark, who is certainly familiar with capturing the look and feel of New York City from his extensive work on the television show 30 Rock. There are some key sequences spotlighting the New York City skyline that are poignant reminders of…well, suffice it to say that these simple shots make more complex statements than anyone in this film does. The DVD gets a nice transfer; picture is particularly crisp and sharp during the daytime sequences, while the nighttime scenes are a bit more hit-and-miss. Sound is solid as well, nicely presenting Erin O' Hara's (Sicko) original score, as well as the dialogue, with clarity.
It's a tough call on whether or not to tell you to check out Day Zero. There's a con for every pro and a pro for every con. We have an intriguing concept, but weak execution. We have some compelling moments, and some dull moments. There are good performances, and bad performances. The film is fair-minded, but also fails to be courageous. It gets a good DVD transfer, but no DVD bonus features. If you're a fan of Elijah Wood, or if you have a great deal of interest in the subject matter of this film, I suppose it might be worth a rental. For me, Day Zero only made me think about how much better the film could have been, when it should have been making me think about how much worse our world could get. A disappointing film.
This film is found guilty, but the judge is going to offer Day Zero
the option of serving time in the military in lieu of prison.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
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