An inexperienced young soldier on his first deployment and a seasoned Ranger medic fight to save a young mother and her unborn child on the Afghan battlefield.
Spend five minutes looking at the work of writer and director Jesse Gustafson, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is someone who definitely does not think small when making films. Despite the swing for the fences, approach that Gustafson seems to apply to his work, what is also clearly evident is the granular attention to character. With Day 39, Gustafson demonstrates his ability to make scope and scale serve character.
The opening moments of the film depict a quintessential display of masculine bravado, complete with shirtless bros and a group rap session and ending on the telling line “I’m a f_ing killer.” The young and headstrong protagonist (John Brodsky) served to us in the opening shot tells us everything we need to know about him inside of 20 seconds. This moment also signposts that he is about to have a day of days in which he will be reminded that even though it is the job of a soldier to fight and, if necessary, kill; that job serves the broader objective of protecting innocent life.
Following this opening, the story begins in earnest, with this fresh, green soldier and his unit engaged in the high-adrenaline combat that he is readily there for. Throughout this sequence it is made clear that Gustafson intends to skimp on nothing. We dive headlong into gunfire, hidden enemies and a flurry of frantic yet disciplined action. Attention to detail is particularly impressive, from terminology, to equipment, to using trigger discipline to build tension, a solid level of authenticity is established early. This all serves to throw both the protagonist and the audience for something of a loop when we gear shift to the mission that becomes the centrepiece of the story; safely bring a new life into the world amid continuing danger and entrenched guerrilla warfare.
Forced to suddenly assist in delivering a child instead of wielding a weapon to take life, the protagonist suddenly finds himself face-to-human face with people he had previously only regarded as targets from a distance. The perspective shift is fantastically reflected in some masterful cinematography, transitioning from wide sweeping shots of the Afghan desert to the enclosed space of a remote hut, leaving the soldier unable to back away from the fear, anger, confusion and just plain humanity seemingly invisible through the scope of his rifle. One particularly jaw-dropping visual moment comes when the soldier enters the hut and we see him framed in the doorway, behind him the expansive desert he had been patrolling, before him and around him only darkness, reflecting the unknown territory that he is walking into. This is contrasted later after a key moment when his surroundings become illuminated and the previously familiar environment outside suddenly becomes a blurry white haze.
John Brodsky plays the young soldier with surprising sensitivity, able to span the emotional range between excitable cowboy and scared, humbled guardian of life, enabling us to witness him embracing a form of bravery that he did not anticipate that he would need. Additionally, the medic who tasks him with assisting in the delivery of the baby (Dion Mucciacito) acts as the pillar of stability amid the crumbling world of the protagonist’s perceptions of what he thought he knew. Mucciacito gives a sterling performance, able to maintain a commanding presence even in the moments that reveal cracks in his confidence. Two small but massively impactful roles are those of Zarmina (Pooya Marseni), who supports Yasmin (Anna Myrha) the expectant mother through her delivery and Abdul (Arash Mokhtar) as the child’s father. Both are responsible for delivering powerful moments that underscore both the stakes of the situation and the shared desperation in the room.
For all of its impressive production value, Day 39 is a sensitive and unexpectedly intimate experience. Regardless of whatever political observations one may ascribe to the war in Afghanistan, you cannot help but take away the inherent desire for human connection displayed in this film. Gustafson sidesteps the trap of portraying either the Afghan civilians or the American soldiers in a stereotypical two-dimensional manner, giving as much attention to the procedural as he does to the personal. Despite the tall order of hitting the right tone as well as authentically depicting the experience of wartime deployment, Day 39 emerges victorious on all fronts.