Day Zero: Three Friends about to Report for Military Duty

Don’t be misled by the movie’s title, which gives the impression of an apocalyptic sci fi, or even horror film.
Meant to create suspense, it refers to a countdown of 30 days amongst three friends, each beset by a different set of personal, social and professional circumstances, who must report for military duty when the U.S. is engaged in a Middle East War due to a terrorist attack.

Set in the near future, “Day Zero” is a quasi-realistic Iraq War film, based on a semi-plausible postulate: What if the draft was reinstated and our young men were mobilized into the war as they were during the Vietnam War.

“Day Zero” showed at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, where it received mixed critical response. It is getting limited theatrical release in New York and Seattle, January 18, sort of a warm-up for the DVD release, February 26, which should reach wider audiences.

Unlike most American war films, which deal with the adjustment problems of vets after combat, this one reverses the equation and depicts the problems of three youngsters before enlisting. “Day Zero” is not a bad film–it’s just a minor work, too schematic in delineating three types of young Americans, and the ways they handle their personal fears and anxieties and moral and political dilemmas as a result of the draft.

George Rifkin (Chris Klien), a partner at a big law firm, is married to a loving wife (Ginnifer Goodwin), who seems to be in remission from a bad case of cancer that involved costly treatments and perpetual fear of recurrence due to low-rate survival. For the first time in years, the Rifkins look forward to conducting normal lives, when she is given a positive report from her doctor.

In sharp contrast to the educated Rifkin is Dixon (Jon Bernthal), a down-to-earth street-smart cabbie, who begins a relationship with a very young woman unaware of his draft. In his leisure, Dixon serves as a surrogate father to a young blonde girl in his building whose parents are drug-addicts.

The third comrade is Aaron Feller (Elijah Wood), the youngest, most immature of the trio, a quiet guy with seemingly no shaped personality or solid mores of his own. Physically slender and slightly neurotic, Aaron is a fledgling writer who had published one book and is now struggling to complete a second one.

Punctuating the events are radio and TV news reports about the war, which seem to affect Aaron more than the others as he goes through a creative block, sitting in front of a blank screen; in a burst of angry frustration, he throws his computer out the window.

The trio also differs in their attitude toward the war. An “old-fashioned” American, Dixon is a patriot citizen almost too eager to serve, based on idealistic convictions of protecting his country’s belief system and spreading democracy to other regions of the world.

In contrast, George seeks aggressively various tactics out of the draft. He first asks his father to exert power with a senator, then considers conscientious objection, declaring he’s gay, and even self-mutilation. His dilemma is expressed in an intense scene, in which he plays with a kitchen knife, contemplating cutting of his finger after getting drunk and icing his hand.

While socializing, the three amigos engage in discussions. Dixon expresses his disenchantment at George’s refusal to serve his country, using social class and political standpoints. Caught in the middle between Dixon and George, Aaron is resigned to serving but is frightened of his inability to take the physical demands of army life and combat. Following advise from his therapist (Ally Sheedy), he constructs a list of “Ten Things to Do” before reporting for duty, in effort to deal with a nearly-paralyzing fear.

That Aaron’s transformation is the most radical, and is both physical and mental, becomes evident in a sequence in which he works up at the gym. He shaves his head, and gets some tattoos, which brings to mind the image of Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” (in which he played a troubled Vietnam vet).

Unlike Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” which consists of a series of patriotic sermons and political lectures, “Day Zero” doesn’t engage in overt discussions of ideology, instead trying to personalize the impacts of politics and the war through the emotional reactions of three individuals and their loved ones.

To balance and variegate the story, director Bryan Gunnar Cole inserts humor, pathos, and even eroticism into the proceedings, through jokes, love-making scenes. He is not above clichs, though. All the scenes with Ally Sheedy, as an indifferent shrink preferring crossword puzzles to her patient’s anxieties about life and death, ring false.

As a buddy-buddy film, “Day Zero” also includes the obligatory bonding moments between the friends, one set in a boat cabin, in which each member has to confide about the “worst thing” he has ever done. Problem is, the revelations point to the resolution in an obvious way. Viewers who have seen Vietnam War films would be able to predict the personal fate of each man long before the end credits. Dixon’s secret is the most routine, having to do with parental abuse and the need to rebel. George’s tale is so traumatic that his choice becomes inevitable, but it’s Aaron’s secret that’s the most telling of his personality.

A scene in which he seeks Dixon’s help after being beaten by a local hoodlum is far more affecting. And Dixon’s own true nature is better revealed through his romantic relationship and his “fathering” of his neighbor’s daughter, his emotion for the women in his life finally giving him something to lose.

Compensating for the predictable narrative and formulaic characterization is the solid acting of the central threesome. Klein and Wood look and behave differently from their previous films, but it’s Joe Bernthal who gives the most naturally engaging performance.