Whatever happened to the “war on terror”? Chris Morris’s intriguing if slight satirical movie, co-written with Jesse Armstrong, imagines the troubled world occupied by those battalions of American bureaucrats, intelligence officers and law-enforcement ninjas, all revved up during the Bush/Obama years to defend the nation against the terrorists of the Middle East and then ideologically orphaned overnight by the wacky new dispensation of Trump – and its preoccupation with Mexico or China or Turkey, or wherever the tweeting finger points next.
The film imagines this entire class of people as like the generals perennially fighting the war before the one they’re supposed to be fighting, or like the mythical Japanese soldier in the jungle who doesn’t know the conflict is over. The Day Shall Come sees this group of embittered and disoriented professionals, still doggedly focusing on the threat from Islamic State and Al-Qaida, and surreally trying everything to create enemies from this province to give a justification to their own dwindling existence.
Anna Kendrick plays Kendra, an FBI officer in Miami who has been running operations designed to lure jihadi terrorists out into the open and crack terrorist cells. But, under the leadership of her exhausted and cynical boss Andy (an amusingly derisive Denis O’Hare), these schemes have degenerated into simple and bizarre entrapment exercises: idiots and dopes conned into appearing to endorse mass bombings and attacks so they can be ostentatiously arrested to make the whole department look good. As Kendra’s colleague puts it, all this has to be done or “the next thing you know, the Statue of Liberty’s wearing a burqa and we’ve beheaded Bruce Springsteen”.
Now they desperately need another plausible bogeyman terrorist cell, and Kendra thinks she’s found one: the eccentric, harmless African-American cult leader Moses (Marchánt Davis) who with his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks, from TV’s Orange Is the New Black) runs a tiny community of souls on a supposed urban farm, all messianically waiting for the day when African Americans will receive justice. And, though Moses strictly believes in non-violence and ecumenism, he is persuaded that he might want to source radioactive materials for a possible cache of ray guns. Kendra realises that they might be able to promote Moses and his ramshackle outfit as a terrorist nuclear threat. The fakery gets out of control.
It’s an amusing scenario with a likably Ealing-ish flavour: Davis is playing the innocent role that might have been taken by Alec Guinness in an earlier incarnation. However, there’s also a hard edge of cynicism to be found inside Kendra’s department, unsure about how to defend their patch against the city’s police department or against worries about the “optics” of whatever they’re doing. Is it, for example, acceptable to attack African Americans as much as they have traditionally suspected people from the Middle East? As someone excruciatingly puts it: “Brown is down, but black is wack.” Perhaps the chief irony is that Moses’s messianic rhetoric has been fulfilled. The day has indeed come for him, though not in the way he predicted or wanted.
It’s a diverting scenario, though maybe it doesn’t quite have the “danger – high voltage” thrill of Morris’s other works. In his 2010 film Four Lions, for example, his dopey terrorists were real terrorists; they really did want to blow themselves and other people up, and Morris brought off the considerable trick of satirising them while also allowing the audience a kind of sympathetic comic access to their world. With Moses and his crew, the situation is different: they have nothing to be ashamed of and so there is less dramatically at stake in their situation. They have to be seen as innocent and yet strange enough to hold the attention. The effect is uneasy yet interesting and watchable, and Davis and Brooks are always good.
In some ways, we are on firmer comic ground with the fractious and disillusioned world of the FBI surveillance team who know that they are in a professional endgame. There is an air of desperation in everything they say and do – epitomised by the awful moment when Kendra gets a boss a takeaway cup of coffee in an attempt to soften the bad news and he winds up spilling it all over his shirt. “Did you shit your chest?” asks a colleague, contemptuously.
They, too, are yearning for the big day to come: a big score against a terrorist villain. But the only reckoning is with their own obsolescence.
The Day Shall Come is released in the UK on 11 October.