Of all the varied strands of post-9/11 cinema, the speculative film–the one showing us what life would be like if it were slightly (but significantly!) different–is by far the most superfluous. Last year’s lame “Right at Your Door,” which sank right into oblivion, pondered a world where Los Angeles is hit by a biological weapon: suffice it to say that civilians panic, human bonds are frayed, and military authority acts really mean. Strangely, Bryan Gunnar Cole‘s “Day Zero” (not to be confused with another desperate stab at topicality, 2003’s Columbine-riding “Zero Day“) could be “Door”‘s unasked-for spin-off. Here, a recent terrorist attack on L.A. is referred to, right along with 9/11, making its world an ostensibly more vulnerable one in which the draft has been reinstated. Of course, the return of a draft would probably be more dependent on the situation in Iraq and the one on Capitol Hill, but first-time film director Cole and screenwriter Robert Malkani (whose only other credit is the brilliantly titled “Dot.Kill”) don’t really care about realistic politics. They’re more interested in the “human side” of this fictional issue, which they seem to know just as little about.
Because “Day Zero” is fueled by guilt. Two-thirds of the film’s group of friends–defying incredible odds, all simultaneously notified to report to their local draft board in 30 days–are privileged, white New Yorkers, representing Americans less likely than many others to be currently serving in Iraq. Instead of reporting on, say, those who actually are, Cole and Malkani play to their prospective audience’s buried–deeply buried–anxiety about such a scenario.
Married and making a name for himself in the firm, George (Chris Klein, Keanu Reeves-lite) wants to shirk his mandatory duty, which best bud and no-bullshit cabbie Dixon (Jon Bernthal) takes very seriously in the midst of finding his soon-to-be-abandoned soul mate. They fall out over divergent ethical philosophies and stances on the war, while nerdy writer Aaron (Elijah Wood) performs weak comic relief, vainly trying to bulk up, kvetching to his distracted shrink (hi, Ally Sheedy! Bye, Ally Sheedy!), and pathetically blundering through a mostly hedonistic to-do list before getting shipped off.
It’s a classic truism, but you know a film’s in trouble when the humor’s tragic and the drama’s rip-roaring. Klein’s wealthy and apparently powerful father might not come through with the political connections to get him off the hook, so the son angrily cruises a gay bar, at first to pick up an excuse for ineligibility but ultimately to vent his rage at the lucky homos who don’t have to serve. That’s the embarrassing low point, but worse is Cole’s perfunctory direction and Malkani’s cliche minefield of a script (“This decision will effect the rest of your life” is but one of its gems), dulling all empathetic routes to the characters’ crises over the long haul.
Anyway, what’s the point? Between Klein’s change of heart and Wood’s ridiculous descent into Travis Bickledom–both of these turnarounds given the flimsiest of motivations–“Day Zero” chickens out of exploring the stickier consequences of a possible national draft, which, if recent history is any guide, would probably involve among other byproducts of civil disobedience a sharp rise in Canadian tourism. Intentionally or not, “Day Zero” ends up positing that the only responses to the obligation of fighting in a useless war are cowed acceptance or death, making the film not only an exercise in superfluity, but stupidity.