Reinstatement of the U.S. draft forces three friends to confront their conflicting attitudes toward the war on terror in indie meller “Day Zero.” Feature bow of director Bryan Gunnar Cole has a big-issue TV-movie-of-the-week feel — and expectations raised by its provocative premise and pacy opening aren’t fulfilled by this tonally uneven movie. Arguments voiced pro and con concerning war and military service never delve very deeply beyond the usual cliches. Still, this is an ambitious pic that could tap into the current zeitgeist and would be ideal fodder for cable or other broadcast.
Action unfolds in a very near future — which looks and feels exactly like the present — with war still raging in Baghdad. Meanwhile, a terrorist action has killed thousands in Los Angeles. As the government can’t secure enough fighting men, it brings back selective service, raising the callup age to 35. Rather than showing the response to the return of the draft in the country at large, pic takes the less interesting path of concentrating on three former high school friends — neurotic writer Aaron (Elijah Wood), corporate attorney George (Chris Klein) and proudly blue-collar cabbie Dixon (Jon Bernthal) — and how they spend the 30 days prior to induction.
Weirdly naive Aaron confesses his fears to a cartoonishly inappropriate psychiatrist (Ally Sheedy), who files her nails and does crossword puzzles during their sessions and advises him to compile a list of things he should do before day zero. George worries about his cancer-survivor wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) and tries to use his father’s political connections to avoid service. Gung-ho patriot Dixon romances sweet student Patricia (Elisabeth Moss) and makes time for neighbor Mara (Sofia Vassilieva), a tween who obviously adores him.
When the guys get together, they frequently revert to juvenile behavior: fighting and making up, getting stoned and revealing the worst things they ever did. Though Dixon may be a self-confessed “fuck-up,” he maintains a workaday equanimity during the countdown; repeating the protector role he played in high school, he rescues Aaron and George from extremes stress has driven them to.
Pic’s most nuanced playing comes from 14-year-old Sofia Vassilieva, whose performance in a bit part hints at an interesting side story not fully developed. Numerous (not very) comic moments highlighting Aaron’s ineptitude interrupt the intensity of the drama and raise the question of why this needy nerd would be befriended by the other two guys.
Camerawork seems better suited to the small screen, with a preponderance of closeups of protags deep in pained thought. Beautiful nighttime shots of the Gotham skyline provide welcome relief. Swelling, sentimental background score alternates with various martial songs, including a rock arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”