Review: The Outpost — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

The Outpost, based on true events in Afghanistan, is as serious and visceral a war film as you will find.

Scene from The Outpost
Scene from The Outpost (Screen Media)

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The Outpost

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: R

Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

Stars: Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood

Writers: Eric Johnson, Paul Tamasy

Director: Rod Lurie

In theaters and streaming on Apple TV and Fandango

I have always had a problematic relationship with war movies, particularly those that are set within the living memory of myself and the people I know — and especially those of more recent vintage, the ones that depict the essential cruelty of combat in ways earlier films seldom did (Think of the D-Day invasion depicted in The Longest Day, told with almost newsreel-like detachment, versus Saving Private Ryan’s version, as horrific a 15 minutes as you’ll ever spend in a movie theater.)

Part of that, I think, comes from the fact that through the sheer randomness of my birth date, I never had to go to war, nor even contemplate the possibility that I might. That made me, from the start, an observer of war rather than a participant; leaving me with a simmering survivor’s guilt I’ve never been quite able to shake.

Beyond that, though, I still have trouble thinking of war movies as “entertainment.” The very word implies fun, or thrills, and that just seems wrong. The idea of getting my jollies from depictions of sacrifice on the altar of human folly seems inappropriate at best; immoral at worst.

So, for me, watching a serious war movie (not a cartoonish one like The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen) is more akin to a meditative walk through a cemetery than a visit to an amusement park. I’m soaking in the atmosphere, but I’m not really having fun.

Which brings me to the based-on-fact The Outpost, as serious a war film as you will find, and as visceral. After a quick briefing via some terse titles, director Rod Lurie — working from a spitfire script by Oscar winners Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy (The Fighter) — straps us into a buffeted helicopter, crammed together with a team of U.S. soldiers headed for a remote outpost in the mountains of Afghanistan circa 2007. The men’s faces, barely illuminated by red night lights, fill the screen, their expressions burning with varying states of resolve, confusion, and fear. It’s clear this is no milk run —particularly because the introduction has informed us the men are headed for what the brass candidly refer to as an “indefensible position” — a valley surrounded by steep mountains from which the enemy Taliban can fire at will. It’s just the first of a seemingly endless string of insane official miscalculations that would be the stuff of comedy if the implications were not so deadly serious.

We meet the guys, one by one, identified to us in no-nonsense fashion via their names superimposed on the screen. Aside from Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings), the actors here are by and large not familiar to us —although their last names are: There’s Milo Gibson, son of Mel; Will Attenborough, grandson of Richard; James Jagger, son of Mick (!), and, most notably, Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, who proves himself to be quite the capable stand-in for his poker-faced dad as a no-nonsense sergeant.

Much of The Outpost is spent exploring the complex relationships among the soldiers; a rowdy, seemingly dysfunctional mix of frat hazing, passionate professions of fidelity, and varying measures of adoration and disdain for the Brass. There’s just one constant at Combat Outpost Keating: At any random moment, the surrounding hills can (and will) erupt in hails of enemy gunfire. Lurie’s masterstroke here is in taking that notion of randomness and tightening it around our throats.

After decades of watching war movies, we’ve grown to sense when a script writer is building up to a moment of violence — we’ve even become desensitized to the tricks filmmakers use to try and catch us off-guard. But even as Lurie allows long passages of relative peace to unspool, his actors never let up their sense of vigilance mixed with dread. When those bullets and bombs come flying, we may jump from our seats, but there’s never a moment of surprise in these guys’ eyes.

The Outpost features some of the most stunning you-are-there camera work I’ve ever seen. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore (Hellboy) ingeniously employs a camera-carrying drone that weaves in and out of the patrol formations. The uncanny result is a sense of being more than a fly on the wall: we’re a hovering spirit of Death, lingering on one set of haunted eyes, then moving on to the next, contemplating which of these souls we will claim next. It is one of the great artistic tragedies of the COVID-19 theater closures that most audiences will never get to experience Senatore’s artistry on the big screen it deserves.

Inevitably, those small but deadly skirmishes lead to a climactic battle as the Taliban tries to overrun the sickeningly vulnerable post. I will of course defer to anyone who has actually experienced battle, but even if this extended, pulse-pounding scene is one-tenth authentic in its representation of the sheer chaos and shockingly reckless heroism that accompanies it, The Outpost more than qualifies as one of the most important war films of the past decade.

Admittedly, there is one point when The Outpost threatens to dip into Kelly’s Heroes-like cliché: It’s the moment when Eastwood’s sergeant, seeing all is nearly lost, grits his teeth, Dirty Harry-like, and seethes “Not today!” — at which point he becomes a one-man fighting machine, rallying his comrades to follow him to inevitable bloody victory.

It’s a jarring moment, but it is also undeniably thrilling. In fact, it’s just the sort of thing we’ve been secretly hoping for: a hand on our shoulder assuring us everything is going to be okay. Sadly, that’s more than the real-life heroes depicted in this exceptional film ever got. Stick around for the end credits, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper — who wrote the book on which the film is based — interviews the real-life survivors of this, one of the 21st century’s most notable cases of U.S. military hubris — and the incomprehensibly dedicated men who were its devoted victims.

Featured image: Scene from The Outpost (Screen Media)

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