What if the compulsory military draft were reinstated in America? How would today’s young men react to something that hasn’t been used since 1973?
These are the questions that screenwriter Robert Malkani poses in the 2007 film Day Zero, and you’d think that an exploration of these issues would be interesting to watch. Unfortunately, the film flounders in the hands of director Bryan Gunnar Cole, leaving viewers with characters that are little more than clichés and events that hardly seem plausible.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): It’s an unspecified year in the near future, and America’s War on Terror is going nowhere. The all-volunteer military system isn’t giving the government the number of soldiers required to sustain the war, so compulsory conscription — the draft — is reinstated. This time around, the upper age limit is 35 rather than 25, thereby making millions more eligible for service.
The film focuses on a group of three New York City friends who each react differently to the draft notices they receive. Writer Aaron Feller (played by Elijah Wood) is scared to death of the thought of going to war because he worries that he won’t be able to acquit himself well as a soldier. He’s neither strong nor brave, and fears that he would simply freeze up in battle.
James Dixon (Jon Bernthal) is a cab driver who is actually looking forward to serving his country. He believes in the war, believes that he would be helping to eradicate terrorists, and wouldn’t dream of abandoning his country in this time of need.
George Rifkin (Chris Klein) is an up-and-coming attorney whose life is just now starting to come together. His wife is recovering from a recent round of chemotherapy, and Chris wants to spend as much time as possible with her. He also wants to stay at his law firm, where he believes he’ll be moving up to bigger and better things soon.
The film focuses on how each of these men deal with their own feelings about the draft and how they prepare to report in 30 days. Each reaction is vastly different, but they all take solace in their mutual friendships at some point and reach out for support in different ways.
My Reaction: As I said above, I thought the basic premise of Day Zero was actually pretty interesting, and I was looking forward to how the filmmakers would explore the different themes. However, because of the poorly written characters, viewers didn’t have an opportunity to connect with any of them, making it nearly impossible to care how they decided to address their futures.
I thought the Aaron Feller character was the least believable of all, from the moment he first appeared on screen. Would a man in his late twenties actually throw up after receiving a draft notice? That reaction just seemed so out of place to me. Sitting and brooding? Sure. Throwing things in anger? Of course. Crying? Perhaps. But crawling to the toilet to vomit? For some reason, that took me right out of the movie, and I never quite got back in.
And why is it that Aaron’s friends couldn’t see that the guy was going bat-shit crazy right in front of their eyes? If nothing else, the shaved head and the freakin’ neck/skull tattoos should have clued Dixon and George in about Aaron being off kilter. Yet all they do is make one or two throwaway comments about whether or not Aaron is ok, and then focus on themselves again. Nice friends.
I thought George’s reaction was the most believable. I could definitely see a guy like that doing everything in his power to get out of reporting — even going so far as to try to chop off his own finger with a meat cleaver. Yikes, I admit I had to turn my head away in that scene, as I really thought he was going to do it!
Overall, Day Zero ended up being more tedious than not because I simply couldn’t identify or sympathize with any of the lead characters. I give the film 2 stars out of 5, and am disappointed with the result as I thought this had the potential to be so much more.