Programme notes: The Day Shall Come

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Chris Morris's two feature films thus far, Four Lions and The Day Shall Come, belong to a long history of cinema turning its spotlight on the farcical nature of war. But unlike Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Stanley Kubrick (Dr Strangelove), Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be), David O Russell (Three Kings) or even Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers), Morris's warfare of interest isn't confined by clearly defined lines of combat. His subject for ridicule is the more slippery War on Terror, a general attitude of fear and paranoia aimed at myriad fundamentalists scattered across the globe. ‘Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them,’[1] is how President George W Bush, the person who brought the phrase War on Terror into normal discourse, defined it in a speech just nine days after the September 11 attacks, essentially declaring the whole world his battleground.

In Four Lions (2010) this battleground was the hearts and minds of four would-be jihadis from Sheffield, who plan and execute several ill-conceived suicide attacks during the London marathon while dressed in novelty costumes. The cell's members were essentially good but misguided men whose radicalisation tended to be the result of naivety or idiocy, rather than any true desire to murder people in the West. The London setting created a queazy parallel with the 7 July 2005 London bombings, but Morris claims inspiration was from multiple examples that came through general reading about the subjects, and he started to see a pattern of unexpected humour. For example, a Yemen group wanted to blow up a US warship with an exploding boat, but loaded the vessel with so much TNT that it sank.[2]

The chief satirical target in Morris's sights this time around is the FBI: specifically the Bureau's policy of entrapment, whereby they encourage potential terrorist groups to commit their planned crime (with the FBI in some cases providing the terrorists with financial backing) so they can be justified in arresting them. Like with Four Lions, Morris's research and inspiration for The Day Shall Come were expansive, with the opening title explaining the film isn't just based on a true story, it's based on hundreds of them. Speaking recently to the Guardian, he explained the case that formed the starting point was the FBI's stitch-up job on Narseal Batiste, a Miami preacher who was given $50,000 to execute a plan that had no hope of working in the first place. ‘Their idea was to push Sears Tower into a lake and swamp Chicago with a tidal wave,’ explained Morris. ‘None of which is remotely possible. They might as well have wanted to invade Washington DC on hippos.’[3]

This kind of topsy-turvy logic has been Morris's bread and butter since spoof TV shows The Day Today and Brass Eye. It's a brand of comedy that's been aptly described as ‘the struggle of common sense against hysteria’[4]. Common sense should tell the hysterical FBI that Moses (Marchánt Davis), a preacher who runs a small community farm in Miami and commands a revolutionary army small enough to fit comfortably in a Mini Cooper, isn't an immediate threat to national security. No citizens are in danger, except perhaps the FBI agents themselves, who are in need of a few more high profile busts to ensure they keep their jobs and continue to move up the Bureau's corporate ladder.

The humour in The Day Shall Come has two distinct registers. There's the knockabout goofiness of Moses and his congregation, whose clownish plans are sketched with affection and pity. When it comes to the comic portraiture of the FBI agents, however, Morris’s satire is more abrasive. When Denis Hare's FBI chief is spitting commands and expletives to his subordinates (who include the ambitious Kendra, played by Anna Kendrick), it's hard not to call to mind the motor-mouth tirades of the hard-nosed politicians and civil servants from Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It and its American cousin Veep.

A flavour of Iannucci is to be expected, given that his and Morris's comic sensibilities have been interwoven since the very beginning of their careers. The pair's first breakout success was writing together on landmark radio comedy On the Hour, a parody of a news programme on Radio 4 in which Morris played the spoof show's obnoxious anchor, called Chris Morris. Breaking stories included headlines like ‘Glass-faced man too disgusting for trial!’, ‘International string measurements agreed!’ and ‘More oxygen needed says France!’ Together, Iannucci and Morris helped change the shape of British satire[5].

The Day Shall Come also shares DNA with The Thick of It and Veep in the form of Morris’s co-writer, Jesse Armstrong, who also collaborated with Iannucci on those shows as well as the former's movie spinoff, In the Loop. But there's an anarchic, Dada edge to Morris’s work that sets it apart. A clear line can be drawn between Iannucci and the great British satirists of the 1960s like Peter Cook, David Frost and Dudley Moore, but Morris's influences seem to spread further afield. The sharpness of his satire tends to be paired with the kinds of wild flights of fancy Iannucci rarely attempts, connecting Morris's branch of comedy with Britain's surrealist tradition too. After all, Moses' fondness for communicating with waterfowl (he thinks Satan talks to him through a duck) and his belief that he can summon a menagerie of dinosaurs via an air horn heavily evoke Monty Python at their most absurd.

Jamie Dunn 
Film Editor, The Skinny
October 2019

[1] CNN’s Transcript of President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress, 20 Sep 2001

[2] Chris Morris Interview, Entertainment Weekly, by Clark Collis, 5 Nov, 2010

[3] Chris Morris interview, Guardian, by Cathrine Shoard, 27 Sep, 2019

[4] Jihad for dummies, The New Statesman, by Ryan Gilbey, 30 Apr, 2010

[5] On the Hour, British Comedy Guide

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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