VOD releases defined much of 2020’s available cinema. That’s not surprising given how little there was to actually work win for professional critics. What else were they supposed to review?
Thankfully, this set of circumstances gave smaller films a chance to shine in a space they otherwise might’ve flopped in. One of them was The Outpost, an adaptation of Jake Tapper’s book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (2012) about a relatively unknown battle from the War on Terror that he helped bring more attention to.
In October of 2009, a small American outpost of 79 soldiers in rural Northern Afghanistan was assaulted by 300 insurgents. This resulted in the death of 8 Americans and 27 additional wounded casualties. It was one of the bloodiest days on the history of modern American warfare.
The film uses the lead up to the battle as a microcosm to explore the nature of the Afghan War itself. Early on, we meet Captain Keating (Orlando Bloom). He’s a true believer in the American cause and bravely leads his soldiers from the front as a diplomat and a leader.
Unfortunately, the situation at his outpost was screwed to begin with. The base was built at the base of a mountainous valley where insurgents could easily position themselves and fire down onto the base. The base was almost inaccessible by road and took upwards of an hour or more to get any sort of reinforcements or med support to in a pinch. Additionally, the rules of engagement require the Americans to positively affirm that enemies are armed before they can fire (back) at insurgents.
While the soldiers are briefly able to establish good relationships with the local farmers, the circumstances immediately fall apart. Very early in the film, Captain Keating abruptly dies in an accident caused by a bad order that came down from command. Unfortunately, without Keating’s guiding hand the hostility within and without the base starts to intensify.
What follows for the next hour is a series of power shifts, long periods of boredom and bad decisions that lead up to the final battle that would claim eight American lives.
The Outpost is a fairly uneven movie. Id even go as far as to say it’s underdeveloped in some respects (namely it’s exploration of the intentions of the war itself and how the National decision making directly affected the situation on the ground).
It’s a very low budget film and you can definitely see that in its execution. The cinematography is all handheld, CGI is minimal and the action itself is designed to take advantage of cramped spaces and reusable sets. The script is mostly struggling to make the most out of a movie this cramped but it definitely feels like it’s trying to be a larger movie than it can afford to be.
Conceptually, the script feels like it’s a story in need of a more consistent idea. We don’t even get to learn much of the reasoning for WHY the base was setup in the first place. We know that the Afghan government wants them to hold out there but we know from the get go that the situation is bad and only likely to get worse. As a result, the movie that plays out is more of an eventuality than a tragedy.
If it’s good at anything though though, it’s a solid movie at exploring the fundamental dichotomy of life as a soldier: intense periods of boredom intercut with sudden bursts of violence and trauma.
We get ALOT of quiet downtime with the surviving soldiers just struggling with the mundane work of operating a military base. They stand on guard duty, carry bottles of pee out out of the base and banter about religion, life, family and sex. When the violence happens, it’s sudden and horrific. Two characters will be walking quietly and then suddenly a bomb will go off in their face. People will be alive one minute and lying in a puddle of viscera the next.
This all leads up to the nearly hour long final battle which depicts the siege in brutal painstaking detail. We watch as the Americans, low on ammo and surrounded, get forced to fight for every inch of their own base. Everything in the first half of the film sets up the prolonged siege which plays out agonizingly as the soldiers hold off for hours for desperately needed reinforcements and air support. They’re low on ammo, trapped in inconvenient locations around the base and several of them are critically wounded.
The result is a film that manages to be evocative without necessarily being effective. It’s a highly watchable action movie that creates a pastiche of American military service but doesn’t quite find the humanity to say something profound. It’s no deep character study and doesn’t come close to some of the great War films we’ve already seen. It’s strengths for merit a watch tho!
(As a quick aside, thank the lord Hollywood is finally STARTING to figure out how to use Scott Eastwood…)