For roughly 12-hours in October 2009, the soldiers deployed to Combat Outpost Keating, located within a valley of the Afghanistan mountains, engaged in a firefight with Taliban fighters. Later called The Battle of Kamdesh, the engagement was deemed the bloodiest battle of the Afghan War as 53 soldiers attempted to hold back 400 members of the opposition trying to take the outpost. Though only eight soldiers died in the engagement, their story is one to be remembered, not just because it’s important to honor those who fight to defend us from enemies foreign and domestic, but because despite the overwhelming odds, lack of immediate support, and supplies running short, Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV managed to do the impossible in a horrific situation.
Their story was originally captured by journalist Jake Tapper in his 2012 book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor and is translated for the big screen by Eric Johnson (Patriots Day) and Paul Tamasy (Patriots Day) and is directed by Rod Lurie (The Last Castle). Given the team behind the film, you’d expect The Outpost to feel just as stylish as 2016’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, another cinematic recounting of soldiers fighting to survive, with the heroes being shown as badasses who eat thunder and crap lightning. Instead, what audiences are offered is something more akin to the first 20 minutes of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan extended over the entire runtime. The end result is often disorienting, terrifying, and almost non-stop. When you consider that Lurie’s third film, 2001’s The Last Castle, is a powerful drama centered on a disgraced general serving time in a military prison who, despite all efforts not to, ends up leading a rebellion against the warden, it’s no surprise that Outpost treats its subjects as human. The Last Castle is a film of patience, of respect for the military, and is filled with pathos. Very quickly, it’s obvious that this same respect is present in Outpost. What makes it most evident is the fact that the direction exudes a cinéma vérité style, seeming to capture moments organically instead of by script. This style, supported by cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore (2019’s Hellboy), translates to ultra-realistic nighttime sequences where the actors can be hard to follow and total chaos erupts when any form of event occurs. The second half of the film condenses the entire 12-hour firefight into an hour and you will feel like you’re right in there with them. One shot in particular, a simple pivot of the camera downward to show a reflection in spilled liquid rather than tilting upward is a prime example of Lurie keeping the audience in the compound, not even allowing for the subconscious to feel like we’re getting out. The script may follow the account of the soldiers catalogued by Tapper, but the direction puts the audience right into the shit with the cast. There is never a hint of when bullets may fire, bombs may explode, or something far worse may happen, which is something that helps the audience better understand the terrible horror that Bravo Troop and others endured everyday of their deployment at Keating.
It’s worth noting that Lurie immediately starts the film from a place of discomfort. Other than a brief bit of text to explain the time and place, the audience is dripped information only as it comes up naturally or through context. If not for the captions Lurie employs so that the audience can know the names and ranks of the unit members, the audience would be absolutely floundering. In many ways, disconcerting as it is to have difficulty tracking who is who at any given moment, it just furthers the sense of realism. The troops landing with Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) seem to have a bit of a relationship, even if only from their helicopter ride to get to Keating. Upon arrival, we learn more and more about the men as Romesha and the others do. There’s no forcing of details, extensive information regarding timelines, or heavy-handedness of themes in any aspect of Outpost. From start to literal finish, The Outpost is all about placing the audience into the same mindset of Bravo Troop, that of constant vigilance, which Lurie instigates constantly. In fact, so great is the unease that if you are unable to watch The Outpost in whichever select theaters pick this up and you watch it at home, do it with the biggest television and best sound system you have. Get yourself as immersed as possible so that when the real fight begins, the one that gets slowly teased as Taliban fighters randomly accost the compound in the first hour, you’ll feel as imbedded in Keating as Romesha and his fellow 52 soldiers.
As mentioned, it may be difficult to track who is who, but there are several stand-out performances that will linger with audiences. The first is Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) as First Lt Benjamin Keating, for whom the compound is named. Bloom offers a vocal performance that makes him almost unrecognizable as, perhaps, the best leader the compound has for the duration of the film. Bloom conveys a certain assuredness and a confidence in his team that transcends regular leadership. Bloom makes it clear that Keating believes in the mission and trusts his leadership, in effect radiating a positive energy that makes it seem like the impossible can be achieved. Eastwood is strong here, too, as his performance as Romesha is more layered than you’d expect from a military-focused film. We don’t know much more than Romesha has a wife and child at home and it’s a fact that never gets played up for drama, yet you can feel it coming off of Eastwood as he’s seeking shelter from a hail of gunfire. In all his performances I’ve seen thus far — Suicide Squad, The Fate of the Furious, Pacific Rim: Uprising — Eastwood’s been almost entirely one-note. He’s afforded the opportunity to show range in Uprising and has great chemistry with Boyega. With Outpost, Eastwood truly shines. Keeping in mind that it is a fairly large ensemble, the last member to keep an eye out for is Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out/Tyrel/Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Jones is almost always a standout in any performance he gives, but what he does within Outpost as Staff Sgt Ty Carter is truly devastating. Jones’s Carter is a bit of an outlier to the unit, seemingly fed up with their constant peril and frustrated by his lack of cohesion with the team. Films like 13 Hours, Saving Private Ryan, even 1917 rarely show the toll our military endures in and after battle, whereas Outpost doesn’t hesitate to put that forward without blinking. So when the attack begins and we see Carter’s true colors, it’s a performance that’ll have you clutching your seat. Though other actors do convey the struggle between duty and survival, none are tasked with this so greatly as Jones.
There’s a strange insistence that just because a film is sent to VOD or digital that it must be bad, while also any film featuring a military victory must be good. Neither of these things are remotely true 100% of the time. In our time of incredible adaption, releasing a film for in-home viewing is more a sign of wanting to get the film seen and The Outpost is a film which should be seen, not because The Battle of Kamdesh is considered the most bloody American engagement in the Afghan War, but because it shows audiences a side of things we so rarely get shown: our military aren’t inhuman, they are just the ones willing to go to places we dare not and do the things we will not in order to serve their country. This is such an extraordinary story, it’s wonderful that Lurie’s direction honors it by not attempting to turn any of the men into symbols. Rather, he wants the general audience to experience what they do, to see it for themselves as the soldiers do. In this regard, make sure you stick around through the credits. There you’ll hear testimonies from several of the surviving members of Bravo Troop talking about their experiences, as well as learn that SPC Daniel Rodriguez played himself in the film. As we head into July 4th, a holiday meant to celebrate the United States’s official separation from British rule, a film like The Outpost is timely and appropriate.
To learn more about the making of The Outpost, check out EoM partner Noel T. Manning’s interview with director Rod Lurie.
In select theaters and on VOD July 3rd, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.