Another guns and glory war movie about young American soldiers having to shoot their way out of some rats nest they should never have been sent to in the first place, Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost” is a familiar but uncommonly visceral reminder of what it really means to “support the troops.” Set during America’s War in Afghanistan — which technically means that it could take place anytime between 2001 and God knows when — Lurie’s film dramatizes the bloodiest and most disastrous engagement our military has been involved in since deploying to Afghanistan almost two decades ago.
It all went down on October 3, 2009, when hundreds of Taliban soldiers took advantage of the fact that the 54 servicemen of Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV had been stationed at the bottom of a valley that would later be deemed “obviously indefensible.” Lurie has described what followed as “an extraordinary shitshow of mayhem and violence,” and “The Outpost” conveys that sense and then some. The film’s “Call of Duty”-level combat sequences may be too hypnotic to disprove the idea that there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie, but even (and sometimes especially) those parts seethe with non-partisan rage at the fact that these kids were sacrificed at the altar of America’s most pointless war.
If this steely memorial is louder than it is deep, it still manages to eke some real courage out of an incident that never should’ve happened. Far from the dick-swinging valor you might get from a Peter Berg movie about the same subject, Lurie’s version genuinely seems to care more about the people ensnared by the Battle of Kamdesh than it does about how badass they looked doing it. So many American soldiers have been asked to die for nothing, but “The Outpost” — for all of its occasional VOD vibes — finds true heroism in how they continue to fight for each other regardless.
Based on the Jake Tapper book of the same name, “The Outpost” spends its purgatorial first hour setting the stage for the violence to come; teaching us the film’s terrain like Kurosawa used to do so well. We’re told that the United States set up COP Keating in 2006, and that it quickly acquired the nickname “Camp Custer” because it seemed inevitable that everyone stationed there — surrounded by mountains that gave the Taliban the high ground — was going to die. The soldiers know that when the movie begins, and they just try to go about their business of engaging with the locals anyway. “This place is a shithole,” one of them says. “Well, it’s our shithole,” another replies. It’s hard to remember who, exactly.
To a degree, Lurie’s interchangeable cast of grunts (whose names flash by on screen faster than we can learn them) helps create a feeling that who they are won’t save them from what’s to come. A southern-fried Orlando Bloom owns the first act as First Lt. Benjamin Keating, but this isn’t the kind of movie where billing order determines what fate has in store for someone. Most of the idle chatter between the soldiers comes across like bad screenwriting, but only in the way that time-killing conversations do in real life, and Lurie shoots them with the light touch of someone just taking in the scenery. Some bullet fire rains down on the camp in the middle of a sunny day, and a totally naked infantryman grabs the nearest rifle and shoots back. That’s how it goes. It’s not always engaging, but it’s usually believable.
All of these characters mush together as part of Lurie’s attempt to convey the nervous limbo of life at the outpost, and yet a few still manage to stand out for better or worse. Caleb Landry Jones is well cast against his usual type (a demonically possessed lizard) as Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, a manic saint who’s always wearing shorts and never leaves a man behind. Scott Alda Coffey leaves a memorable impression as the ineffably decent Michael Scusa. Only Scott Eastwood, playing Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, feels like he’s in the direct-to-Redbox version of this movie. Making the least of a standard-issue soldier role and grimacing through dialogue that even his father couldn’t say with a straight face (“We’re taking this bitch back!”), everything about Eastwood’s ersatz stardom detracts from the grim reality of what’s happening here.
That only proves more true when the combat starts, and his well-honed glint is distractingly out of sync with everyone else’s abject terror. Maybe that’s just what Staff Sergeant Romesha was like during the battle, but it can’t help but seem like his action star bravado belongs in a different movie — one where a firefight feels more like an opportunity and not the tragic consequence of a major leadership fuck-up. For the most part, however, Lurie does a strong job of threading the needle between excitement and calamity; shooting much of the 45-minute long ambush in hectic, agile long-takes allows him to capture the Battle of Kamdesh for all of its terror, and with a clarity that allows us to feel that terror in our bones.
Awash with the ominous tones of Larry Groupé’s score (which restrains itself from full-chested military bravado until the very end), every set-up is framed in a way that conditions you to expect a sudden jolt of violence. Sometimes it stays quiet, and other times major characters are sniped down with little fanfare. The savage grace of the battle choreography is sustained far longer than your nerves can take it, and the result is some of the most intense modern combat footage this side of “Black Hawk Down.” Understanding that some of the wannabe young Rambos watching this at home might want to partake in the action, Lurie emphasizes valor over victory whenever he can, and that — to quote one character —“it doesn’t matter what kind of soldier you are” when the army hangs you out to dry. “Dead bodies attract dead bodies” is a common refrain here, and those words radiate off the screen.
For all of its heart-in-your-throat excitement, “The Outpost” resonates as a cautionary tale more than anything else — especially in the wake of the revelation that the President of the United States looked the other way when Russia put bounties on the most vulnerable members of the American military. If our government cared about the boys of Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV as much as they cared about each other, more of them would still be alive today. Then again, if our government actually supported the troops, they wouldn’t have sent them to Afghanistan in the first place.
Screen Media will release “The Outpost” on VOD on Friday, July 3.