[Review] ‘THE OUTPOST’ draws focus through chaos and valor, not dominate characters

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE OUTPOST

Rating: R, 123 minutes
Director: Rod Lurie
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Milo Gibson, Jack Kesy, Will Attenborough, Jacob Scipio, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger and Cory Hardrict

Say “Benghazi” and expect reactions about phone calls and Hilary Clinton, or maybe Michael Bay’s 13 HOURS. Say “Kamdesh” and expect stares.

The Battle of Kamdesh is one of the bloodiest battles for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t carry nearly the publicity as Benghazi or Operation Red Wings (as documented in the novel LONE SURVIVOR and its eponymous film).

Rod Lurie changes that with THE OUTPOST.

Much like the surviving member of Operation Red Wings, Lt. Marcus Lutrell, wanted the movie to be as authentic as possible, Lurie has similar ambitions. In the press notes that accompanied the screener, there was a written statement from the filmmaker. Over a few paragraphs, he is strident to uphold the memories of the fallen and the surviving soldiers. Through all the scrapes and broken ankles suffered by the cast, a short shooting window and not nearly enough money to get it made, Lurie didn’t want to get it wrong. But to accomplish this, he has to make some judicious decisions that provide one big drawback.

On October 3, 2009, a force of approximately 300 Taliban attacked Combat Outpost Keating, which operated in a valley of the Hindu Kush mountain range near the border of Pakistan. Upon our arrival to the military installation, the camera pans up to the rocky terrain and hilltops. Clearly this must be a mistake. No sane military commander would establish a base at the foothills. Tactical advantage is looking down on your enemy not up at them.    

The outpost was a powder keg from the day it was conceived. Established in 2006 to serve as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (called PRT Kamdesh), high levels of insurgency activity had it operate as a military encampment instead. Subject to short firefight skirmishes and ambushes when navigating convoys along too narrow mountain roads, to the resident soldiers, the mission became clear: survive.

Based on Jake Tapper’s novel, the movie abridges the story in two sections – the preamble to the battle and its inevitable bullet-strewn, explosion-filled cacophony. The compression of time and events is jarring but a necessity. Changes in leadership occur; lives are struck down without warning. A fruitless attempt is made to identify each soldier, but there are so many that they become indistinguishable.

Ridley Scott’s BLACK HAWK DOWN had similar problems. Another ensemble war movie that has so many names and faces you could play military bingo. Even if you try to latch on to somebody in THE OUTPOST, there’s a strong possibility he won’t make through the next scene.

Where THE OUTPOST earns its stripes is by conveying the violence and dire straits of warfare. Honestly, I didn’t think Rod Lurie had this type of movie in him. Previous works DETERRENCE and THE CONTENDER play like Aaron Sorkin derivatives. Then he did a pointless remake to Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS. Here, Lurie provides an immersive experience that still plays well in a non-theater environment. The combat sequences are well rendered and executed. What we lose in well-defined characters is supported with explosions and heavy artillery.

It’s a bit ironic that the biggest name in the cast is Orlando Bloom as Lt. Benjamin D. Keating, the soldier for whom the camp is named. He is an actor that couldn’t escape the success of being in major tentpole franchises (LORD OF THE RINGS, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) and strike it out as a leading man. THE OUTPOST is a bit of reacclimatization, much in the same way Matthew McConaughey had his “McConaissance.” Adding to this irony, Bloom is joined by the sons of leading man royalty. Milo Gibson (Mel’s son) plays Cpt. Robert Yllescas and Scott Eastwood (Clint’s son) plays Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha.

Eastwood has a strong presence that gets upstaged by Caleb Landry Jones as Specialist Ty Michael Carter. Routinely hazed by fellow soldiers as if he were an incoming freshman looking to join a fraternity, Carter’s gallantry in the heat of battle is nothing short of amazing. Then his closing moment on screen echoes those deep-seated feelings shell-shocked servicemen experience after their ears stop ringing.

THE OUTPOST is not a meditative look at war. Nor does it carry the hooah jingoism that we’ve commonly seen. Instead of investing in characters, Rod Lurie’s film commits to the heroism of the unit as a whole. The result is good combination of technical proficiency and capable acting in extolling the Battle of Kamdesh.

Grade: B-

THE OUTPOST is now available on digital platforms.


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