A film review by Craig J. Koban August 8, 2020

THE OUTPOST jjj

2020, R, 108 mins.

Scott Eastwood as Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha  /  Caleb Landry Jones as Specialist Ty Michael Carter  /  Orlando Bloom as 1st Lt. Benjamin D. Keating  /  Taylor John Smith as Lt. Andrew Bundermann  /  Cory Hardrict as Sergeant Vernon Martin

Directed by Rod Lurie  /  Written by  Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy, based on the book by Jake Tapper

 

 

The new fact-based war thriller THE OUTPOST marks a welcome return for director Rod Lurie, who hasn't made a film in nearly ten years (he previously helmed one of the best and most underrated political dramas of the 2000s in THE CONTENDER).  His latest tells the tale of 53 American soldiers and two Latvian military advisors that desperately tried to stave off the invasion of 400 enemy Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.  The U.S. base being attacked in question was a sitting duck, if there ever was one, located very deep in a valley and surrounded by three gigantic mountains on every side.  Shooting at the Americans from higher ground was like shooting fish in a barrel for the Taliban insurgents, and THE OUTPOST - especially during its final half - does an exemplary job of staging this terrifying siege with the utmost attention to gritty verisimilitude. 

Lurie's film also works - granted, with intermittent levels of success - as a character ensemble drama, as we're introduced to the story's many characters during their frequent down time that leads up to the aforementioned Battle of Kamdesh in 2006.  The outpost in THE OUTPOST, Combat Outpost Keating, faced the constant threat of Taliban attacks, which placed all of the lives of the men stationed there in constant peril, which led to the military's decision to close it down (once the Taliban learned of this, they decided to go on the immediate offensive).  Leading the charge of defending this borderline indefensible base is Lt. Benjamin D. Keating (a nearly unrecognizable Orlando Bloom), and, yes, the base was named after him when he died during the conflict (no need for SPOILERS, people...it's history).  Before all of the death and mayhem, though, we meet Staff Sergeant Romesha (a never been better Scott Eastwood, who for the first time ever in a film eerily looks and sounds like a young version of his dear old dad in Clint), who has just arrived for his tour of duty on the outpost.  Rounding off the squad are Captain Robert Yllescas (Milo Gibson) and Specialist Ty Michael Carter (a superb Caleb Landry Jones), all of whom try to acclimate to the intense levels of unease that always looms in the background on any given day.  These men face a war on two fronts: The mental war of trying to deal with the chronic uncertainty of when the enemy will attack from above and the literal physical war of staying alive when the Taliban launches their final crippling blow. 

 

 

One of my criticisms of THE OUTPOST is that it's perhaps a bit too heavily filled with characters that Lurie tries to introduce and develop (which is commendable), but when all is said and done most of them are fairly interchangeable grunts without much distinguishing characteristics.  There's nothing inherently wrong with allowing this solid assortment of actors embrace their respective roles, and the initial meet-and-greet introductions to all of these men are handled relatively well.  Yet, there's just so many thrown in here that Lurie ends up resorting to title cards with the soldier's names to just help us keep track.  There are some players here, thankfully, that do stand out apart from the overcrowded pack, especially Eastwood's stalwart turn as Romesha, who lends a commanding voice of reason to the sheer insanity of his squad's predicament.  And then there's Landry Jones' impressive turn as Carter, who's the hopeless outsider of these band of brothers and seems to be the butt of their verbal assaults (he's frequently demoted to menial tasks at the camp).  In a lesser actor's hands, Carter could have been a one-note victim, but here Landry Jones really fleshes this troubled man out and explores all of his layers of complete twitchy restlessness.   

Yet, to be fair, THE OUTPOST works so much better as a visceral war film than a dramatically anchored, character dynamic fuelled one.  We get all of the standard accoutrements of the hyper masculinized microcosm of this tight knit group men of honor clan, but Lurie seems much more interested here at exploring the harsh underbelly of what constantly lurks outside of the camp.  Every waking moment of every day comes with the potential threat of enemy aggression, in small and large forms (even daily and routine patrols of the surrounding mountain ranges could spell doom for the Americans if they fall victim to a well timed sneak attack).  Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore really understand the importance of making the environment and geography of the base a secondary character in its own right (we're granted a pretty spectacular - and frightening - tracking shot at one point that unequivocally shows what a truly horrible spot this base resides in relative to the foreboding terrain that surrounds it).  There's simply no getting around it: this was a horrible spot for base of operations that was doomed for failure. 

And when THE OUTPOST builds towards an absolutely harrowing final 45 minutes that showcases the Battle of Kemdesh in all of its grisly detail it shows Lurie at complete command of his craft.  There have been countless war films in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN's wake that have tried to duplicate its unique brand of you-are-there realism and chaos, and THE OUTPOST is certainly no exception.  Lurie is not trying to be a methodical Spielberg clone here, though, as he brings his own stylistic sensibilities to the unending carnage that ensues in his film's back end.  He manages to fully encapsulate a nagging sense of the unknown as to when the Taliban will attack as well as commandingly relaying the hellish terrors of the battle itself, which erupts seemingly out of nowhere, much to the horror of the stationed men.  These sections of THE OUTPOST are undeniably masterful and technical powerhouses, during which time we see in startlingly immersive detail the explosive violence that ensued during this fateful battle as well as all of the mico-second choices that these brave soldiers had to make to ensure their survival.  It's inconceivably brutal and terrifying witnessing this brutal assault on unsuspecting soldiers, and on a level of pure craftsmanship Lurie's film here is as good as any covering similar war terrain. 

I also appreciated that THE OUTPOST wasn't a heavy handed in its aggressive jingoism; it's less a piece of flag waiving patriotism then it is a work that wants to entrench viewers smack dab in the middle of the bloodiest battle of the Afghan War in the late 2000s and to experience the never-ending madness of it all.  In many respects, it's a proud celebration of gallantry, but herein lies one of the other larger problems with Lurie's approach: He never seems to have much to say about what, if anything, was accomplished at this base, not to mention what he feels about what seems to be some stunning military leadership incompetence in this outpost's location as a whole.  Horrible lapses in strategic judgment led to the placement Combat Outpost Keating, but the film never delves much into that, leaving a lot of questions unanswered as the film concluded.  Still, THE OUTPOST makes up for these indiscretions on a performance front as well as for its thrilling portrayal of the nightmarish pointlessness of an unwinnable battle.  Like the recently released war drama GREYHOUND, it's the kind of potent sensory powerhouse that probably would have worked better screened in a large cinema with a giant screen and propulsive sound system (pandemic be damned!).  That's all too bad, but that doesn't take away from the Lurie's end game of celebrating the unqualified courage under fire of these men that faced the worst war scenario possible. 

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