There are really only two ways to make a great war movie. One is to find some unique or stylized way to tell the story, as Christopher Nolan did with Dunkirk. The other is to lean heavily into realism, as was the case with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Both approaches are perfectly valid and, done correctly, can lead to an intense, meaningful experience. Director Rod Lurie chooses the latter for The Outpost. That was definitely the right call for this particular true story. Based on Jake Tapper's book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” the film is exactly the edge-of-your-seat experience it needs to be.
The setting is Combat Outpost Keating, located in a village in Afghanistan. It's entirely surrounded by mountains, meaning that the soldiers stationed there are essentially fish in a barrel for the Taliban, who have 360 degrees of high ground. Under the direction of First Lt. Benjamin Keating (Orlando Bloom), the soldiers' job is to secure the cooperation of village elders. The first half of the picture introduces us to the main characters, Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) and Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), both Staff Sergeants.
They and others deal with being fired upon on a daily basis. Fear of never making it out of COP Keating is pervasive. There's a strong psychological quality to this initial section, as the characters are perpetually aware that their enemies have a massive tactical advantage. A sense of dread engulfs them, and us. The soldiers try to use gallows humor to get through, yet they know that their outpost is not equipped to withstand a serious attack.
The second half is a sustained battle sequence, as a small number of U.S. troops attempt to hold off hundreds of Taliban members who do indeed launch an assault. If you intend to see The Outpost, prepare to hold your breath for sixty minutes. Lurie often uses long takes to add a sense of reality. He knows too much editing can make danger feel artificially created. Seeing the characters in lengthy shots, with bullets whizzing by them and explosions occurring around them, feels far more authentic. Aided by documentary-like cinematography from Lorenzo Senatore and a dynamic sound mix, Lurie plunges the audiences directly into the hell of a battle that should not be winnable by any measure.
Parts of the film are almost unbearably tense. Perhaps the best scene finds Carter relatively safe inside an armored military vehicle that's being bombarded by enemy gunfire. One of his colleagues lies wounded a hundred or so feet away. He decides to jump out and pull the man to safety. Again using an unbroken shot, Lurie has us running alongside him. I won't spoil what happens, but there might not be a more nail-biting sequence in any movie this year.
The Outpost works magnificently as an action picture. There's more to it, though. The film is a tribute to the “never give up” attitude of the soldiers at COP Keating. Despite being outnumbered and surrounded, they refuse to go down without a fight, even as casualties add up. The Battle of Kamdesh was one of the bloodiest in the War of Afghanistan, and the manner in which the story is told helps viewers understand just what a harrowing event it was.
All the cast members do fine work. The standout is Caleb Landry Jones. He's one of those character actors who's always dependable. Here, he gets a role unlike any he's had before. Carter isn't always liked by the other members of his unit. He is, however, even tougher on the inside than he is on the outside. A scene at the end where he lets his vulnerability come through proves emotionally devastating. Jones deserves serious awards consideration for his superb performance.
The Outpost is one of the very best war movies of recent years. Grasping the enormity of something like the Battle of Kamdesh becomes easier when you see it dramatized. Watching the movie, we feel tense and nervous. Those sensations are just a fraction of what the troops at COP Keating went through. Walking away without an overflow of respect for what they accomplished is impossible.
out of four
The Outpost is rated R for war violence and grisly images, pervasive language, and sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.