For those of born in the early fifties, the baby boomers, our ninetieth birthdays were not as joyous as they were for subsequent generations. As young men this birthday entered us in a lottery. If your birthday was picked you received and all expense paid couple of years in the army. Since this was the time of the Viet Nam war it usually included a trip to Southeast Asia. This was the military draft, the informal name for conscription. It also was one of the main influences in our lives that year and a major driving force in the constant protests against America’s involvement in the Viet Nam war. Now, once again the United States is engaged in an unpopular war overseas. It seems that without the draft the number of protests have dwindled from the record numbers of the sixties and seventies. With no end in sight for the war in Iraq and enlistments failing to meet all established quotas it is not unfeasible that the government would once again activate the draft. ‘Day Zero’ from first time feature film director Bryan Gunnar Cole looks at just that premise. How would the lives of three friends change when they are called up for service and have only a month to before they must report duty? For those of us that lived through this scenario this film is all too familiar. We have already lived through this. Those currently of typical draft age should see this as a cautionary tale. This is not completely a work of fiction; it could happen to you.
It is difficult to believe that this is the freshman effort for Cole. He has an incredible hold over the way this film is presented. There is a feeling of balance to this work. Different socio-economic backgrounds are considered as well as different opinions of the call to duty. Cole thankfully backs off from getting on a soap box and forcing a one sided opinion piece on his audience. This movie is a character study not a political piece. The question of whether a draft is morally right comes up but only in the context of looking at the men about to serve and those around them. At times the film is overly melodramatic but it can be forgiven. Anyone part of the last generation to face an active draft during a time of war will tell you, the circumstances are by their natural over the top. Just ask your grandfather or father about his draft lottery. He will tell you that as the low numbers were called those that would go first, the reaction were often overly emotional. Cole does emphasize ancillary means to heighten the drama. The use of a cancer survivor could have been written differently and still retained the necessary emotional impact. ‘Day Zero’ is intentionally vague in its message. It provides the situations and characters. It is up to the audience to watch and draw conclusions.
The film is set in the ‘near future’. A title card informs the audience that ‘Following the Vietnam War, the United States suspended the draft, until now.’ There is then a montage of draft boards and lotteries drafting young men. The war in Iraq is still raging. The audience watches as induction notices make there way to three young men. Aaron Feller (Elijah Wood) is a struggling author working on his second book. George Rifkin (Chris Klein) is a young lawyer on his way up in a major firm. Finally there is James Dixon (Jon Bernthal) a street wise and somewhat unstable taxi driver. All three live in New York City. For baby boomers everywhere the look on Aaron’s face as he stares at the letter from the Selective Service Administration is very familiar; it is the look of your world crashing down. He opens the letter and throws up. Although some 70% of the American people oppose the draft the government felt they had no choice to reactivate it. In Los Angles there was a terrorist attack that killed 15,000 people. Between than and the continuation of the war there was a pressing need for a greater military presence. Each of the three friends has something to tie them to their current lives. George is not only just beginning to peak at work his wife Molly (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a recent cancer survivor. Just when they thought life was getting back on track this happens. Aaron wants time to finish his book. As he tells his therapist it is not so much killing that bothers him. He is sure he would kill remotely from a tank or far away gun but not face to face. Aaron is willing to push a button but not a trigger. James has the least to lose of the three. In some ways the sands of Iraq are not much different from the streets of New York, you have to be tough to get through. Now they have thirty days to get themselves ready to go.
Since George is the most privileged of the three he immediately begins to think of ways to get out of it. His father has connections in Washington so hopefully the problem will just go away. One term that was popular in the seventies comes to mind "conscientious objector". Aaron, ever the writer, comes up with a strange list of ten things he wants to do before reporting. On the list are items like parachuting (couldn’t that wait for the army?), smoke pot, drink 10 shots of whiskey and have sex with a hooker. For James it would be business as usual except he has been helping to care for a little girl Mara (Sofia Vassilieva) who has a junkie mother (Tanya Clarke).
When I first heard about this film I was worried that it would be just another political talk-fest. Fortunately I was mistaken. This is a true emotional work that relies on character development as defined by a tightly written script. This is the second film script penned by Robert Malkani and it works on almost ever level. He allows sufficient time for each of the characters to expound on their emotional journeys. Cole builds on this script and takes best advantage of a very talented cast. It may look like he went over the top with Aaron’s reaction. Having him shave his head and go ‘Taxi Driver’ may seem ridiculous but the sad fact is some people did react to the draft by checking out of reality early. Their only way of coping was to divorce themselves from every established norm they have known. Even though the characters are well written as individuals they are ultimately archetypes and occasionally are pushed to prove a point. Cole also manages to find just the right spots to inject a little humor just to break the tension.
This is a stellar cast of young talented actors. Chris Klein may have made a name for himself in the first American Pie flick but as grown as a actor. Here is plays George as a man who cannot believe that a lottery has taken away his well planned future. In too many scenes it is all about him instead of his living wife who almost died from cancer. Woods may be trying to take on roles to remove him from the Hobbit character. He plays things to excess here but does so with flair. As George’s belabored wife Ginnifer Goodwin is excellent. Here is an actress that is coming into her own. She now is know as wife number three on HBO’s ‘Big Love’ but this film shows she has range and is rapidly learning how to use it. Young Sofia Vassilieva is the daughter on TV’s ‘Medium’ but here demonstrates an ability that can translate to the big screen as well.
Of late I have been getting a good number of films to preview from First Look Home Entertainment. I never know what to expect but I know it will be special and this is no different. They are becoming one of the best sources of independent films in the DVD marketplace. Unless you have an art house nearby you may not have heard of most of their releases. This is a shame since they are some of the best examples of cinema as an art around. This film is in that category. ‘Day Zero’ is a film about a politically charged subject that deftly avoids being political. The film will result in discussion. The audience may find itself divided by generation or gender but in all cases talk about this film after you watch it. You can enjoy the performances but you will think about the message.