The Outpost by Rod Lurie stars Scott Eastwood, Milo Gibson, Caleb Landry Jones and Orlando Bloom.
Of all cinematic genres, war films have to be the most “static.” Sure, the technologies and motivations behind war change, but war always remains more or less the same, and the reasons why one would choose to depict war remain more or less the same. You either think war is hell and want to condemn it, you want to honour and support the troops or you want a little bit of both — the more popular post-Iraq choice. That means that, even with the purest and noblest of intentions and the most original pitch imaginable, war movies made since the Iraq war tend to look and feel the same. They exist across the spectrum — from jingoistic to deeply critical — but they tend to focus around a particular battle that went completely wrong, where many young men lost their lives uselessly to fight a war that felt particularly unwinnable.
Rod Lurie’s The Outpost isn’t really that different from many other films of its ilk, in spite of its somewhat less rigid pedigree. Lurie (who graduated from West Point and became a director after years as a film critic) has a somewhat atypical career path and vision, and he made the film at a particularly trying time in his life (his son Hunter died during production, aged only 27). It’s clear from the get-go that Lurie is coming at the material from a somewhat different direction that a Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson film might (though both of those right-wingers’ sons actually appear in leading roles in this film) and it’s also clear that the low-level, grunt’s-eye-view of armed conflict is meant to be somewhat more apolitical than the usual celebrations of unusual, above-and-beyond military heroes. Yet the fact remains that any movie about the Iraq war has to clear a couple of hurdles to set itself apart — something that The Outpost doesn’t entirely manage, though it does do a pretty good job trying.
Combat Outpost Keating is a remote American outpost located at the bottom of an Afghan valley — a strategically difficult-to-defend spot that allows Taliban insurgents to approach from all sides and effectively entrap American soldiers from every corner. Originally designed as a way to facilitate contact with nearby communities, Combat Outpost Keating is effectively sort of useless from a tactical standpoint. Army higher-ups seem to think that the base isn’t a particularly vulnerable one, given its status, but that doesn’t stop the men (mostly inexperienced infantrymen) from dealing with insurgents taking potshots nearly every day. Ignoring intel from local connections, the men go about their daily business until they are besieged, one day, with more than they could ever have bargained for.
The Outpost consists of two pretty distinct halves: before the attack and the attack itself, which logically means that the first half is designed for character development. Alas, there’s not much The Outpost can do on that front. There are way too many men on the base to properly sketch them out, and even the ones who are sketched out (the ones played by recognizable actors such as Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom and Milo Gibson) aren’t given much to do. In the true tradition of these things, some of them have wives and some don’t; some of them say stupid racist shit and some do not. All of them, give or take a couple of tertiary characters, look exactly the same, which makes any sort of character development in the early going laborious, to say the least.
The fact that most soldiers are 20-something white guys with the same haircut and no facial hair isn’t really a bug in modern war movies — it’s a design element. In that respect, The Outpost begins as a fairly disorienting but honest warts-and-all depiction of the situation: the mix of tedious day-to-day tasks swirled in with the looming but seemingly imperceptible threat. Lurie has a remarkably unvarnished approach to the material, something that’s possibly backed up by the fact that the relatively low budget means the film must remain in close quarters and as granular as possible for as long as possible.
Where The Outpost really shines is in its second half, a relentless “action” scene (though Lurie has rejected the notion that the film is an action film) shot mainly in long takes that sees the men fighting off an onslaught of Taliban insurgents. Here, the film resembles nothing more than Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, a film that also weaponizes the fact that its characters are visually interchangeable in the chaos of war. Of the actors, only Caleb Landry Jones really sticks out as an anxious, inexperienced soldier who’s immediately thrown into the thick of it; the less said about Scott Eastwood’s charisma-free “lead” performance, the better. Lurie’s dexterity in the second half of the film almost makes up for the fact that the film’s character development and general sense of incoherence.
Like many movies of its ilk, The Outpost prides itself on being an accurate and respectful portrayal of real-life events. It’s the kind of movie where survivors were on set and the credits have a clip of each actor next to a poster of the real-life person they’re depicting. Unlike many of these films (the two Boston Marathon Bombing movies, Stronger and Patriots Day are particularly egregious examples), The Outpost doesn’t fall ass-backwards trying to deify and elevate its heroes to the status of martyrs. It’s a film that both supports the troops (in the broadest sense possible, rather than in the “viral videos of old guys in camo shorts pulling a gun out at the gas station” sense) and understands that the military-industrial complex isn’t exactly in the business of making heroes out of high-school dropouts.
Ultimately the question that The Outpost raises is one that it also cannot answer by itself: what is the ultimate point of making one, two or three of these movies a year? These military tragedy movies always position themselves as an homage to the fallen, a totemic tribute in which guys from Middle America will always be crystalized as looking like underwear models and the sons of Republican heartthrobs. I question whether movies like The Outpost are truly achieving the kind of tribute they think they are, even one as carefully considered as The Outpost. But none of that is Rod Lurie’s fault, really. ■
The Outpost is out on VOD today. Watch the trailer here:
For more details about the film, visit IMDB.
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