I’ve never had a particular affinity for war movies, but the ones I tend to appreciate the most are those that feel honest and authentic about the way people behave during wartime, both during firefights and the quieter moments in between, when soldiers must decompress and process the idea that, just moments before, someone they didn’t know was trying to kill them. I’m especially drawn to war films that acknowledge the fear that each soldier experiences and must overcome to get to bravery. Working from the nonfiction book of the same name by CNN’s Jake Tapper and adapted by Oscar-nominated screenwriters Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (The Fighter), director Rod Lurie (The Contender) has crafted The Outpost, a truly harrowing, often terrifying look at the bloodiest American engagement of the 19-year Afghan War—2009’s Battle of Kamdesh.
This tale of Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV begins as a fairly mundane story about the men who occupy the indefensible base known as Combat Outpost Keating, a relatively small plot of land located at the lowest point in a small valley surrounded by three mountains. Basically, at any time, the Taliban could come at them from anywhere around them and attack. For a time, this isn’t really an issue because the raiding parties are small and can be dealt with. But everyone at the outpost seems to share the idea that a full-scale, coordinated attack from several higher-ground positions is inevitable, and would likely earn the base its nickname: Custer’s Outpost.
But these small battles seem like the least of the problems of Capt. Ben Keating (Orlando Bloom), who spends a great deal of time striking insignificant deals with the local elders who he knows are also helping the Taliban. His frustration with the situation and the skilled way he negotiates for the smallest favors adds to the believability of the film and gives us a sense of the constant frustration he and all of his men experience day after day. Lurie does’t get into the politics of the Afghan War. We don’t even really know what these men think of the war at all, because discussing such matters won’t save them or help them fight better. They accept that they have drawn the short straw in terms of their assignment, and they are going to make the best of it.
We get to know a handful of the soldiers and their stories as the men have candid conversations with each other—nothing too deep or sentimental, but enough to figure out that everyone has someone at home waiting for them. Showing more natural-born movie star quality than I’ve ever seen in him before, Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) plays Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, a fairly low-key communicator but a knowledgable tactics fighter. There are times when you can close your eyes and hear Scott’s father in his voice so clearly, it’s scary. And it’s the voice of authority that the men in this movie need. Another recognizable face is Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out) as the most emotionally inclined member of the unit, Specialist Ty Carter (who also appears as another character in the movie, as do other military men, including some who fought in this battle).
When the men finally get word that the outpost is being shut down and they get to go home, the film becomes an unbearably tense countdown to extraction, which we know will not be a peaceful road. The running time of The Outpost is about two hours, and roughly half of that is a ruthless and miraculously staged siege on this indefensible location. In the end, it will leave you feeling beaten up, battle scarred, and moderately shell shocked. Now imagine what these soldiers went through, and you’ll understand part of the reason that Bravo Troop became one of the most decorated units of the Afghan conflict. A former soldier and graduate of West Point, Lurie does a particularly stunning job keeping the geography of the fight straight, which seems like an impossible task at times: there are small teams of men scattered throughout the base—in various stages of wounded and/or pinned down—as hundreds of insurgents come down the mountains and easily make their way into the outpost’s fence.
The movie does not spare us the death and decimation that comes in every war, nor does it glorify anything about armed combat or killing the enemy. The film doesn’t care why the war is happening or the inherent wrongness of the fight. The Outpost’s only mission is to take us through this particular gate of hell and see us through to the other side. And the devil appears particularly vivid here because Lurie and the screenwriters (and presumably Tapper) get so many of the details right, both the seemingly meaningless and the vital. The film isn’t just about heroism, survival or valor; it’s about finding meaning in the meaninglessness of war. And while so much of the movie exists in chaos, that message is soberingly clear.
The film is available beginning Friday on most on-demand platforms and streaming services.
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