A little more than an hour into Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost,” an American soldier wakes up in a remote camp in the hills of northern Afghanistan and grumbles, “Just another f—ing day in Afghanistan.”
But the day in question is Oct. 3, 2009 — and as “The Outpost” makes unforgettably clear, it was anything but just another day.
A riveting combat movie that aims to put viewers alongside American soldiers in the midst of one of the bloodiest battles in the long-running war, “The Outpost” takes the measure of what a few dozen men endured and finds heroism not in enemies killed but in compadres saved.
In telling the story of an attack by hundreds of Taliban fighters on 53 U.S. soldiers, the film delivers one of the most harrowing combat sequences in recent memory; the sustained assault, which nearly destroyed the outpost, occupies most of the film’s final hour and should leave an audience drained by the sacrifice rather than thrilled by the victory.
That it will do so largely on small screens is, of course, a disappointment. “The Outpost” — which is dedicated to Lurie’s son, who died from cardiac arrest at 27 when the movie was in pre-production — was originally scheduled to premiere at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. When that festival was canceled, it slated a more robust theatrical release for the July 4 weekend. But, with most theaters still closed, the film now will be released mostly on VOD, along with scattered theatrical bookings.
Speaking as someone who first saw the film on a big screen prior to SXSW, that’s a shame. “The Outpost” can’t be as immersive and wrenching on a TV screen as it is in a theater, though it’s a gripping experience either way.
Based on the book by CNN’s Jake Tapper, written by Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson and directed by Lurie (“The Contender,” “The Last Castle”), who graduated from West Point and served in the U.S. Army, the film is based on the Battle of Kamdesh, the first battle in more than 50 years for which two soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. The battle took place at Combat Outpost Keating in northern Afghanistan, an inaccessible camp surrounded by mountains that made its occupants vulnerable to attack from all sides. As an opening title points out, it was nicknamed “Camp Custer” — “because,” said one analyst, “everyone there was going to die.”
Like everything else in the film, we see the camp through the eyes of the soldiers, as a new group arrives at night by helicopter. They’re identified with their last names at the bottom of the screen — KIRK, ROMESHA, GALLEGOS, YUNGER… — and they’re greeted by an officer who speaks bluntly: “Welcome to the dark side of the moon, gentlemen.”
The soldiers are thrown into an environment where they’re sitting ducks and where gallows humor is the order of the day: “Thank you for your service” is always a sardonic punchline. Taliban fighters come by every day to shoot at them from the relative safety of the surrounding hills. The question isn’t whether they’ll be attacked, but when and where.
The attacks come unexpectedly, but that doesn’t make them any less inevitable; that turns every innocuous conversation into a tense one and imbues every moment with a palpable sense of danger. Two soldiers walking across a bridge talking about the West Point class of 1984 can be unbearable — and because the biggest stars aren’t necessarily cast in the roles of the soldiers who live the longest, we can never relax and assume that our favorites are safe.
(The fact that a few of the real soldiers are mixed in with actors who look very much like the men they are playing makes the stakes doubly apparent.)
For the most part, Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore shoot this from the soldiers’ level with hand-held cameras, and the audience is expected to learn things on the fly, as the men do. Names and locations will pop up on the screen now and then, but there’s little exposition and no context that the men themselves wouldn’t have. But when the film gives you the lay of the land, pay attention; Lurie doesn’t spoon-feed you information about people and places, but it’s there if you want it and it’ll come in handy later on.
In the early going, we get a touch of “Wages of Fear” when Lieutenant Keating (Orlando Bloom) is ordered to drive a huge truck over treacherous mountain roads that are much too small to accommodate it. And there’s some serious foreshadowing when Sergeant Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) surveys the camp from the mountain trails that overlook it and breaks down how he’d attack it if he were the Taliban. From that point on, even as the soldiers try to make peace with the locals, you know it’s just a matter of time.
But “The Outpost” never feels as if it’s rushing to get to the battle, as inexorable as that battle seems. The first hour is full of small character moments, of conversations and arguments that feel real and grounded. And then it’s Oct. 3, a few days before the camp is due to be closed for good, and all hell breaks loose.
To say that the ensuing 40 minutes is chaos is accurate, but we’re still learning about the characters in the midst of the chaos. “We need to figure out who needs what!” a soldier shouts at Specialist Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), and Carter’s reply is succinct: “Everybody needs f—ing everything!”
Shot in long takes that snake through the carnage, the sequence is visceral and brutal and achieved with a budget far lower than most war films. As the fight goes on, Romesha and Carter emerge as the central figures — Romesha because he comes up with a plan to take the outpost back from the Taliban soldiers who get inside its gates, Carter because he makes superhuman efforts to rescue another soldier badly wounded and pinned down by gunfire. Eastwood stands out in a role that carries a little of the stoic authority of his father, Clint, and Jones (“Get Out,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) is riveting as Carter, from his desperation during the firefight to a breakdown afterward that is reminiscent of Tom Hanks’ wrenching final scene in “Captain Phillips.”
That breakdown scene is one of many essential and haunting grace notes that “The Outpost” finds in the aftermath of the battle. The film doesn’t leave you with a sense of glory, but with the feeling that the Army put these men in a completely impossible situation, and they somehow came together, fought and managed to not all die. It’s a victory, to be sure, but a horrible one that should not have been necessary.
The larger context of why these guys were there is never discussed, except to acknowledge that it was futile for the U.S. to be in Afghanistan, just as it was for the British and the Russians before them.
But this is not a film about the politics, or about the Afghans, who appear either as untrustworthy villagers or as shadowy fighters coming down from the hills. It’s a grueling, brutal and, ultimately, triumphant film about sacrifice and loss and bravery, and one made to honor the men of Combat Outpost Keating.
That, by the way, is a reason to stick around to the end of the credits, when some of those men appear — because this story obviously stirs something deep in its director, who keeps finding ways to adding new shades to this story until the screen finally goes black.