Rod Lurie’s military thriller about the Battle of Kamdesh can’t quite nail its critique about the horrors of war.
Making a war film about the Afghanistan/Iraq war anytime in the last two decades has been a philosophically fraught proposition that’s in turn, semi-regularly yielded a tone-deaf result. There’s been nearly every permutation of approach to the war, individual battles, effects of the war, and its stygian cultural shadow. Those include documentaries that highlight the stop-start flow of battle (Restrepo), docudramas fetishizing granular tactics (Zero Dark Thirty), morality plays (Eye In the Sky, A War), well-intentioned but hollow empathy ploys (The Kite Runner) – and of course, power fantasies (Lone Survivor, 13 Hours, Men of Valor, too many others to name).
That inventory of sub-genres isn’t to suggest every film fits neatly into one of these categories but rather to demonstrate a dissonance. It’s a self-evident identity crisis that so thoroughly poisons Rod Lurie’s The Outpost to make the film itself feel entirely disingenuous. Part of that is surely the moment – 2020, a time when even wistful comparisons to previous presidents are speckled with the pragmatic realities of surveillance states and rug-swept drone massacres. But that feels both too simplistic and broad to articulate why The Outpost is so thoroughly unpleasant as both a film and a rhetorical exercise.
Suffocated with non-stop locker room shit-talking (often literally, in the case of latrine detail, which one soldier compares to Agent Orange) in the place of character development, The Outpost recounts the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh, one of the most infamously bloody engagements of the Afghan War. Based on Jake Tapper’s non-fiction book of the same name, screenwriters Paul Tamsay and Eric Johnson center their adaptation on three soldiers of Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV, a unit that defends a poorly outfitted base from Taliban forces.
First Lieutenant Benjamin Keating (Orlando Bloom) calls the shots, but it’s hard to concentrate on his orders when Bloom is vainly cycling through Australian, British, and Bostonian cadences to find an American accent. Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) fares better as a straight-ahead commanding alpha taking the reins when action surges but rarely emoting beyond a clenched melancholy. And Staff Sergeant Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones) is characteristically an askew outsider who nonetheless steals every scene he’s in with his springboard physical presence and goosed facial expressions.
Lurie and DP Lorenzo Senatore attempt to emulate the urgency of war with handheld Barry Ackroyd-lite camerawork, grimy and often unintelligible color schemes, and cuts to wider angles of the battle. But despite the insistent migraine-inducing sound design of M-16 patter, most of the fights have the visible momentum of laser tag – all sound, no fury. One could say that’s an approximation of the chaos of battle but without any baseline understanding of the spaces, each scene becomes an interminable wave of bass groans, M-16 gunfire, and barely known characters dragged to their final graves.
Brief moments of introspection peek out between battles, like a brief discussion about how a few of the men lie about how they’re doing when calling home, or a stilted but engaging conversation between Carter and another man about why no one trusts him. Those bits of color are immediately drowned out by the repetition of ex-wife jokes or immigration jabs. Nearly every character other than those three leads is defined less by personalities than a single attribute that can be insulted. And in the thick of it it’s even harder to tell (or care) who’s going to live or die.
The film unusually comes closest to drawing the viewer into the soldier’s headspace when there are false alarms or there’s downtime to chain smoke. In one scene, a soldier practically trips over himself in turning his weapon toward a rock falling down a hill. But these respites also spotlight the film’s neo-liberal empathy for the “innocents” of Northern Afghanistan. In between cracks about the Salah chiming in the background and soldiers not knowing what a burka is, there’s an underdeveloped symbiotic relationship between the unit and adjacent Afghan villagers.
Nearly every character other than those three leads is defined less by personalities than a single attribute that can be insulted.
The most pandering sequence comes when the soldiers ask the villagers to lay down their weapons, but that’s insult added to injury when the villagers seem to narratively exist only to pay lip service to invaders being kind to those that they are invading. Whether you see that previous sentence as political or not, that thread recurs as multiple pieces of dialogue emerge where villagers are framed in unsympathetic ways and aren’t even given the respect of individual subtitles beyond a translator. Combined with another character who is seen as crying wolf repeatedly, the film continually seems to be aware of the convoluted nature of its circumstances but doesn’t seem interested in interrogating those elements beyond the bare minimum.
Murkiness is a pervasive textural element in modern war films whether pointing fingers at incompetent leadership or negotiating the ingrained xenophobia and outright nihilism that breeds on the battlefield. As such, a number of films have teetered between these charred social politics and the notion of courageous soldier/s securing independence for the beleaguered innocents of their selected geopolitical sandbox.
But The Outpost specifically feels like a film caught between blatant military propaganda and a retrospective view of a boondoggle in such a way that it feels fundamentally false. Compared to filmmakers like Peter Berg, whose latter-day career has been dominated by rah-rah advertisements for American nationalism, Lurie has created a film that feels unable to express its true identity. As a result, all that’s left is a film without character, force, or coherence.
The Outpost is currently streaming on VOD.