Just a few minutes past the midway mark of “The Outpost,” director Rod Lurie re-creates the Battle of Kamdesh, and for nearly the next hour of this intense, immersive modern-day combat thriller, audiences experience how it must feel to be caught in a sustained Taliban siege on a virtually indefensible location in Afghanistan.
Situated at the bottom of three tall mountains in hostile territory, exposed to daily attack from all sides, Combat Outpost Keating represents a terrifying example of an indefensible military position — what children, in their playground games, proverbially refer to as “the mush pot.” Adults might call it a suicide mission. And yet, on Oct. 3, 2009, 53 American soldiers found themselves trapped in this Afghan Alamo, swarmed by an estimated 400 enemy forces, in what would become one of the deadliest confrontations the Army sustained in the region.
A film critic turned filmmaker who made his reputation behind the camera with a pair of talky political dramas, “Deterrence” and “The Contender,” Lurie similarly found himself in the mush pot after his ill-advised 2011 remake of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” — which is hardly a place of strength from which to stage either a career comeback or an epic homage to real-life heroism. Even so, working with a relatively modest budget, Lurie commits himself to delivering an authentic account of this unthinkable worst-case scenario, which is like having a front-row seat to hell — or it would be, if one were able to experience it in a movie theater, the way the director intended.
But how could Lurie have known that a worldwide outbreak awaited “The Outpost’s” release? He’s been cursed before, as DreamWorks had to rethink the release of his 2001 military-prison thriller “The Last Castle” (the campaign for which featured an upside-down American flag) in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In that case, the film still came out in cinemas, whereas “The Outpost” saw its U.S. premiere at SXSW canceled by the coronavirus (following an earlier screening at the Thessaloniki Film Festival the previous fall), and was later forced to scrap plans for a July 3 theatrical push from Fathom Events, defaulting to a streaming release.
Such a film may suffer from home viewing, and yet, “The Outpost” represents the most exhilarating new movie audiences have been offered since the shutdown began, which softens the compromise of watching it under less-than-ideal conditions — although it seems frivolous to talk about poor conditions compared to what the servicemen of Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment faced at COP Keating. “The Outpost” makes clear in its opening moments how tense life in such a camp must be at all times, as bullets blaze down from above, cutting fiery streaks across the screen.
If this were fiction, audiences might be able to better predict who lives and dies among the ensemble (a multi-cultural mix that features four survivors, cast alongside professional actors). But unless they’ve read journalist Jake Tapper’s book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” things don’t play out in predictable ways.
Screenwriters Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson come to the assignment having previously collaborated on two Mark Wahlberg movies, “The Fighter” and “Patriots Day,” although it’s another of Wahlberg’s true-story projects, the Afghanistan-set “Lone Survivor” (in which they had no part), that “The Outpost” most resembles. Like that film, Lurie’s project captures the intensity of 21st-century warfare. But as its title implies, “Lone Survivor” perpetuates the Hollywood myth of solitary heroism, of exceptional individuals single-handedly saving the day, whereas “The Outpost” depicts how a group of soldiers work together under chaotic circumstances to save as many lives as possible.
The biggest name involved here is Orlando Bloom, who plays First Lt. Benjamin Keating, the commanding officer who receives the order to start prepping the team to close down the location — although they don’t yet realize that’s the Army’s goal. Rather, the immediate directive is to move a heavy-duty truck out from the bottom of this basin up a series of narrow roads and tight switchbacks, so it might be more useful elsewhere. That sets up what seems like an update of “Sorcerer,” William Friedkin’s underseen, ultra-suspenseful “The Wages of Fear” remake, in which a small team transports nitroglycerin via a similar vehicle. “The Outpost” illustrates how such a mission might have gone wrong, leaving the camp even more vulnerable than before.
Written accounts of the Battle of Kamdesh — including not just Tapper’s book, but also Medal of Honor recipient Clint Romesha’s own first-person retelling, “Red Platoon” — contextualize events by explaining the decisions that endangered the men stationed at COP Keating. For example, knowing that the outpost would soon be shut down, the Army directed its attention and resources elsewhere, instead of reinforcing the camp. But the soldiers couldn’t know that at the time, and “The Outpost” thrusts audiences into their shoes. Overwhelmed and confused, frustrated by orders that put them directly at risk, the members of Bravo Troop recognize they’re in a tough spot. Still, they don’t believe the local informant who insists that a Taliban attack is imminent.
During one of their walks up the mountain, Staff Sgt. Romesha (Scott Eastwood) points out just how easy it would be to overwhelm their low-ground position. Coming across as more than just a younger cover-band version of father Clint, Eastwood cowboys it up in the role, spitting out lines like “It’s the Big One. Saddle up!” and coolheadedly picking off Taliban snipers when everyone around him is ducking for cover. He’s the only one here who behaves like a Hollywood action hero, whereas the others — most notably Caleb Landry Jones as Staff Sgt. Ty Carter — embrace the fear and panic that threaten to overwhelm their training.
“The Outpost” isn’t glamorous, but it’s respectful of the sacrifice and split-second decision-making that Bravo Troop faced, amplifying the terror of such an impossible assignment by attempting to mirror the characters’ point of view. At times, the camerawork suggests first-person shooter games, or the swiveling perspective of virtual reality simulations. Cheating Bulgaria for Afghanistan, Lurie and DP Lorenzo Senatore embrace long takes, but don’t employ them to show-offy effect, making every attempt to place audiences in the scene, which pays off best in the film’s spectacular nearly hourlong finale.
That sequence deserves to be seen on the big screen — and maybe it eventually will, when megaplexes start booking the movies obliged to bypass them during the shutdown. In the meantime, it’s as if we’re all stuck in the mush pot these days, bombarded on all sides. Here’s a movie that understands that metaphor, as well as the existential need to keep on fighting.