In Anti-Terror Satire 'The Day Shall Come,' Whimsy Blunts The Cutting Edge
Before finally directing his feature debut, the audacious comedy Four Lions, in 2010, director Chris Morris collaborated with Armando Iannucci on satirical news shows like "On the Hour," "The Day Today" with Steve Coogan, and "Brass Eye," a parody of current affairs newsmagazines. They would work together again when Morris directed a few episodes of Iannucci's "Veep," and Morris bounced around for a couple decades as a writer, actor, and/or producer of various sitcoms and radio programs, often with a sharp political bent. And like Iannucci, he starts from a place of extreme pessimism about the values and integrity of those in power.
The first thing anyone mentions about Four Lions is its high-wire act of a premise, which follows an inept band of would-be jihadists operating out of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Yet for all its edgy material on homemade bomb-making and targeting — and a genuine shocker of an ending — the film has a much softer center than expected, with an air of self-deprecation and eccentricity that humanizes the radicals at its center. At times, it feels comparable to Wes Anderson vehicles like Bottle Rocket or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, full of misfits who come together behind one harebrained scheme or another.
That whimsical quality is overplayed in Morris' disappointing follow-up, The Day Shall Come, a potentially cutting satire about the follies of terror prevention that allows rampant silliness to dull the blade. The formula is similar to Four Lions, in that it's about radicals who aren't as menacing a threat as they appear to be, but Morris turns a tiny Hebrew Israelite commune in Miami into such a goof that its revolutionary goals are rendered foolish and incoherent, not merely nonthreatening. While satire relies on a level of absurdity, Morris also presses the humility and humanity of the film's patsies, and the two different angles don't really go together.
The promise of the film is summarized by the titles, which claim its "based on a hundred true stories," suggesting a pattern of harassment and disingenuous investigations in the name of homeland security. In the opening scene, FBI agents gather around a monitor to witness the execution of sting operation meant to trap a suspect into activating a bomb through a cell phone number. The only trouble is their man has "pentaphobia," a fear of the number five, and he can't bring himself to dial a number littered with fives. So the FBI operative is basically forced to fake-activate a fake-bomb that it had spent time and resources grooming a brown-skinned man to do himself.
And so it goes in the world of The Day Shall Come, which settles on an operation to entrap Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis), the leader of a dubious religious mission in South Beach that calls itself "The Star of Six." The mission only has four members, not including Moses' wife (Danielle Brooks) and young daughter, and overthrowing the government is merely one line item on a busy and contradictory spiritual agenda that includes the worshiping of "Black Santa." Needing a win to continue justifying itself, an FBI counterterrorist unit, led by ambitious agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) at the helm, picks Moses as its next target. With Moses facing eviction and getting no help from the bank, he welcomes a mysterious cash influx from a Middle Eastern source, but he refuses weapons and doesn't spend the money as the authorities expect.
Morris and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, lock into a powerful thesis about how the desire to prevent another 9/11 incentivizes law enforcement to cut corners and fudge the details just to put some homegrown terrorists behind bars. There's some nuance, too, in their treatment of Kendrick's FBI operative, who doesn't know how to stop the events she's put into motion, and in Moses' obliviousness to the consequences of his own hustle. He's level-headed about the chances of fomenting revolution with an army of four ("We should not start a race war we will definitely lose"), but he's too narcissistic to realize this sudden interest in his organization comes with a serious catch.
There are some fitful laughs in The Day Shall Come, from acrid bits of dialogue ("He's got the threat signature of a hot dog") to an Al Qaeda magazine with "Make Warheads From Cookie Dough," but it doesn't punch nearly as hard as its conceit requires. The distinguishing quality of the Iannucci school of political satire is its ruthlessness — which Armstrong, on Succession, occasionally pushes into tragedy — but Morris drifts his focus away from the thesis in an effort to add dimension to his characters. That's usually a good instinct, but there are long stretches of the film where his reason for making it gets lost in flaky religious training rituals or a disposable interlude with white supremacists. Meanwhile, the system that allows these injustices to persist gets away mostly unscathed.