In Day Zero, three young men confront something that men in the United States have not had to face in more than 30 years, a military draft. Bryan Gunnar Cole's examination of their relationship in the face of what could be death on a Middle Eastern battlefield, a work of fiction, is a rare, albeit oblique, look at how the Iraq War affects the home front.
So far, Day Zero is one of the first narrative films of its kind, and it could have a marketing edge because of its novelty as an imagined view of young American men being drafted. It could also gain attention as a critique of the war's impact. Elijah Wood, who gives the film's best performance as Feller, a sweet-tempered young writer, is the most marketable member of the cast and could attract an existing fan base.
Foreign territories are unlikely to offer much potential. Americans who dread fighting a war of their own creation won't generate much sympathy or interest internationally.
Day Zero looks at three close friends from high school in New York, facing induction in a draft that includes males up to the age of 35. Rifkin (Chris Klein) is a lawyer on the rise in a prestigious firm. Feller has just written his first novel. The dread of being drafted is blocking him on his second, and he tries to overcome that in sessions with a passive-aggressive therapist (Sheedy).
The volatile angry Dixon (Bernthal) drives a cab, and protects the other two, much as he did as the tough guy from a modest background in their high school days.
Rob Malkani's script about male fear and male camaraderie could only be set in a place like New York, where three characters who have 30 days to report for duty don't know anyone in the army, don't know anything about the military, and view the prospect of serving as a death sentence.
The drama in Day Zero comes when the young men start examining their short lives and the testosterone starts flowing.
The tough loner (De Niro-esque) Dixon supports a war of revenge against Islam and lashes out at Rifkin and anyone else who sees serving as career-damaging. In one of the film's lighter moments, Feller (Wood) abandons his new novel for a to-do list, which includes more sex and training in combat gear in a parody of Rambo and Taxi Driver.
Director Bryan Gunnar Cole and cinematographer Matthew Clark use New York locations effectively to map the differences between the affluent lawyer, the struggling cabdriver and the dreamy writer, although Malkani's script is far less realistic in its vague effort to present how a military draft might really work.
The obvious parallel and precedent for Day Zero would be the Vietnam War, when one's draft status was an everyday topic of conversation, and everyone told stories of faking infirmity, homosexuality, or conscientious objection to avoid serving. That war is barely mentioned in this film - a suggestion that today's younger generation sees that earlier war in which almost 60,000 Americans died as ancient history.
Nor are there allusions to Vietnam Era films like Alice's Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1969) which satirised induction as it adapted the classic song by Arlo Guthrie. It's astonishing that no music from that era is on the soundtrack.
Rather Day Zero tells us much more about its characters than about the War On Terror. In that sense, deliberately or not, it is a twist on the coming of age story, although the three men have moved beyond adolescence.
What it does suggest, to scriptwriter Malkani's credit, is that its characters - and much of America - live in a fool's paradise, in which they're shielded from the sacrifices that war demands. Since there's no support in Congress for reinstating the draft, that's unlikely to change.
Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz/City Hall Film
Bryan Gunnar Cole