By Phil Hall | December 14, 2007

“Plan 9 from Syracuse” is the year’s best documentary, bar none. This astonishing film details the extraordinary lengths that a single dream-driven individual dared to travel in pursuit of what many people might consider to be a cockamamie dream. Not unlike the Ed Wood anti-classic that inspired its title, the film is fueled by a logic and energy that is distinctive unto itself. But unlike Ed Wood’s endeavor, this “Plan 9″ is a thoroughly compelling work of art.

The focus here is Ryan Dacko, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based filmmaker who scored a critical success with his 2004 indie “And I Lived.” However, the film did not prove to be the stepping stone for additional productions. Stymied by his inability to secure backing for a new film, Dacko decides to take a brazen and bold approach to getting his foot firmly in the film industry’s door.

As “Plan 9 from Syracuse” details, Dacko endeavors to run from Syracuse to Hollywood in 90 days, with the hope of gaining attention of a “mystery producer” with whom he desires a meeting. The run would be publicized via the Internet, with the hopes of building media attention along the route. When Dacko reaches Denver, according to his original plan, the mystery producer’s identity will be revealed and Dacko’s followers would be urged to lobby the producer to meet the filmmaker.

In concept, this is clearly an odd strategy. Even more peculiar is the fact Dacko had no experience in marathon running prior to the August 2006 launch of his cross-country race.

However, Dacko was repeatedly prosecuted by Murphy’s Law. Two days into his run, his legs began to swell. On the third day, the driver of the support vehicle following him along the route abruptly quit. The replacement driver would quit 30 days later, requiring Dacko to carry his supplies and electronics equipment in a toy wagon, which was later replaced by a runners’ stroller that repeated suffered from flat tires (his younger sister eventually showed up to help him on the final part of the trip). Blisters, a sprained ankle, tonsilitis, a sinus infection and food poisoning also battered his body. A variety of storms (rain, snow, sand) added insult to his injuries.

Even worse, the mystery producer was identified ahead of schedule as Mark Cuban (it’s not clear who leaked it). Cuban, through an e-mail to a reporter, reacted with insulting hostility to Dacko’s effort. Dacko, learning of Cuban’s scathing comments, was crestfallen – but decided to press on. “I don’t want to be another fool with a camera,” he comments ruefully.

Well, no one would ever accuse Dacko of being a fool after watching this film. “Plan 9 from Syracuse” celebrates the indefatigable spirit of a determined dream-chaser in the most magical fashion. On the surface, the film is a tribute to Dacko’s physical prowess as he tackles this grueling marathon through a wide range of meteorological conditions. The film’s inventive and trippy music soundtrack by the underappreciated band The Lost Patrol brilliantly mirrors both the tough (if off-beat) athlete and his ever-changing landscape.

But more important, the film is a tribute to the emotional strength to push ahead when the odds are clearly stacked in opposition. Despite Cuban’s dismissive comments, the collapse of his initial plans (the run goes 49 days and an unspecified monetary sum over budget) and the inability to secure media coverage in the major cities he visits, Dacko presses forward with uncompromising tenacity. He openly expresses serious doubts and brutal angst over his failings along the road. Although a small and dedicated fan base is following his journey via the Net, he is usually ignored as he runs along the highways and back roads of America. Yet he never quits, and pulling the plug is never an option. Dacko’s strength is an inspiration to any person who is in the chase of an impossible dream.

“Plan 9 from Syracuse” also offers disturbing commentary on the state of the American psyche. Throughout the film, Dacko appears like a beacon of hope running through a landscape of dashed dreams (particularly in the startling sequences when he races across depressed Midwestern small towns and Old West ghost towns). It is easy to cheer him on as an underdog, but Dacko is clearly not taking the role of underdog. He is very much an outsider, not only to the film industry that virtually ignores this run but to a country that seemingly no longer has a place for brash and daring souls ready to tear down the prison walls of societal conformity.

It is hardly ironic that Cuban doesn’t wish to embrace Dacko’s adventure. Cuban, a one-time iconoclast hovering on the fringes of the business world, obviously savors his current role as well-moneyed insider and would rather reinforce the status quo than encourage the next wave of dreamers from following his path. But considering that path would lead people to displays of public foolishness on tacky TV dancing shows, perhaps it is a route that is best not taken.

But the ultimate irony is “Plan 9 from Syracuse” itself. In recording what ultimately turned out to be a less-than-successful adventure, “Plan 9 from Syracuse” presents a stunning portrait of bravery and dedication that far surpasses any narrative fictional film that Dacko hoped Cuban would finance. Dacko did not, by any stretch of the imagination, fail in his efforts. In creating this documentary feature, he presents a challenge to everyone with a dream – get off your a*s and try to make your dream a reality.

Dacko’s message resonates with the blunt fury of a punch to the solar plexus. But maybe people today need a punch to the solar plexus to motivate them out of lethargic daydreams and into the chase for a better future. And maybe we need more movies like “Plan 9 from Syracuse” to remind us what independent films can achieve. Seriously, indie cinema doesn’t get better than this.

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