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Movie Review: Day Zero

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The setting is New York City. The time is the near future. Fourteen hundred people have been killed in a terrorist attack in Los Angeles, similar to the one in New York on September 11, 2001. The war on terror intensifies, and the U.S. reinstates the draft.

Three friends receive letters ordering them to report for duty in 30 days. Day Zero (opening in limited release on January 18), an independent film released by First Look Studios, offers a tense and fleeting glimpse into the lives of three men forced to face their political beliefs and personal convictions head on.

George Rifkin (Chris Klein) just made partner at his law firm, and his wife has survived cancer. He tries to use his father's political connections to get out of the draft, becoming so desperate that he contemplates cutting off his fingers and feigning homosexuality. Taxi driver James Dixon (Jon Bernthal), the typical nothing-to-lose character, is patriotic and ready to fight for his country. Aaron Feller (Elijah Wood), a writer who suffers a creative block upon receiving his letter and listens to war news on the radio all day, makes a list of 10 things he wants to do before he heads to war, including having sex with a prostitute and skydiving.

As the plot unfolds, Dixon and Rifkin lock horns over whether to serve in the war. Sparring with another guest at Rifkin's dinner party, Dixon shouts at the upper-class peacenik: "You think fighting is wrong because you never had to fight for anything in your life."

By movie's end, street-tough Dixon, fighting in one form or another all his life (served a two-year stint in a juvenile center for beating up bullies harassing Rifkin when they were teens), now has something to lose. After receiving his draft notice, he becomes romantically involved with a sensitive sociology student who doesn't know he's been drafted. He also plays surrogate father to a neighbor child with a drugged-up mother. (Although the friendship with the wise-for-her-age blonde little girl is supposed to be sweet as she spends time in his apartment, it made me a little uncomfortable.)

While Dixon and Rifkin are ready and reluctant to fight, respectively, Feller is somewhere in the middle: afraid to fight and resolved to fight. Physically smaller than the other two, he's at times literally in the middle as they argue back and forth about why they should or shouldn't go to war. Feller's only concern seems to be: "You really think we'll die over there?"

Seems is the operative word. Wood (almost 27), whose still-boyish face and enormous blue eyes jump out of the screen, portrays a nervous young man who eventually reveals a fear far deeper than fighting in a war. Strangely enough, the movie has comical moments, which are effortlessly woven into the action and mostly involve Wood's character.

Former Brat Packer Ally Sheedy (looking good after all these years) makes an appearance as Feller's unethically disengaged psychiatrist of seven years, who does crossword puzzles, reads magazines, and paints her fingernails during their sessions.

"What if they don't like me," asks the anxiety-ridden Feller. "I'll bet the first ones to die are the ones that nobody likes. I feel like I'm one of those guys."

Her response? She writes him a prescription for sleeping pills and says, "You don't need a psychiatrist, Aaron. Just be yourself." Okay. She could have saved him a lot of money if she'd told him that seven years ago.

Day Zero is better than I expected, although I thought the men were an unlikely trio. They seemed too different to have retained such a long friendship. The haunting soundtrack was appropriate for the story; the retro songs (and Wood's sideburns) gave me the impression I was watching a Vietnam War-era movie.

Whether one is for, against, or indifferent to the Iraq war, there's something in the movie for everyone. According to Anthony Moody, a producer on the film, that process was deliberate. "[W]e didn't make a political film in the traditional sense which, to me, is one that takes a biased stance and attempts to persuade the audience to its argument," he wrote on LewRockwell.com. Moody said that he, screenwriter Robert Malkani, and director Bryan Gunnar Cole are "in no particular order… a liberal, a conservative, and a centrist."

Day Zero goes beyond the rhetoric of war and exposes how men's own convictions disrupt and interrupt their lives.

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About La Shawn Barber

  • Jane Sullivan

    Thank you for an intelligent, thoughtful (though brief) review of Day Zero. I assume, with the release date coming up, that you were working from an advance copy? Indie films are in a particularly precarious state these days, struggling to find distribution and recognition in a sea of sequels, prequels and ‘blockbusters’. Which is a shame, because the ‘big’ movies are ultimately spectacle, while brilliant performances of truly gifted people like Elijah Wood go undiscovered. Again, thank you.

  • Thanks for the kind words, Jane. Yes, I had an advance copy. I agree with you about indie films. I want to do my part (even if it’s small) to make sure people know about good ones like Day Zero.

  • Shannon Kay

    Great review LaShawn. I’ll add this to my list of must sees!

  • Richard Cook

    It will be very interesting to observe when and if it comes time to ante up for all the rights we have.

  • William

    I’m glad to see a release of a balanced and discussion provoking (vice a biased and rant provoking) movie on any social topic. And that this is an independent movie is even better. Thank you for your review. I will put it on the list.