You might expect director Rod Lurie (West Point class of 1984 with four years in military service) to push the flag-waving aspect of a film about the war in Afghanistan. Though The Outpost pays heartfelt tribute to the soldiers who fought and died during the bloody 2009 Battle of Kamdesh, he opens fire on the military hubris and stupidity that put these soldiers there in the first place. While President Obama talked of withdrawing troops, Army brass ordered a small unit of 53 U.S. soldiers to hold down Camp Outpost Keating, located at the bottom of three steep mountains. It was also just 14 miles from the Pakistan border, where more than 400 Taliban fighters picked them off from above like sitting ducks.
It’s that suicide mission that Lurie, and a cast headed by Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones and Orlando Bloom, bring so vividly to life as the insurgents assaulted the outpost with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and B-10 recoilless rifles. They killed eight American soldiers and wounded nearly two dozen others, making it one of the worst attacks on a U.S. outpost during the Afghan war. And just try not to think of the recent reports about Russia-paid bounties to Taliban forces for killing American soldiers.
With a script by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy, based on The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by Jake Tapper, the film emerges as an action thriller which never loses sight of the futility of the war being fought. Tapper, the chief Washington correspondent for CNN, wrote his 2012 bestseller to highlight what he termed the “deep-rooted inertia of military thinking.” Praising the book, Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer said: “If you want to understand how the war in Afghanistan went off the rails, read this book.”
You could also watch this intensely powerful movie, which Lurie directs with a keen understanding of the mechanics of battle and an overriding humanism that puts flesh-and-blood on the bones of the tragic story being told about Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV, one of the most decorated units of the 19-year conflict. Eastwood excels in the key role of Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha. (As the son of Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, the young star of The Longest Ride and The Fate of the Furious must have seen the irony of playing a soldier named Clint.) Romesha understands that thoughts of home and family might interfere with the laser focus required to have the backs of his brothers in arms. Having written his own account of the war in the book Red Platoon, Romesha won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage under fire. Eastwood captures the soldier’s “saddle up” spirit and also his keen grasp of what led to this unwinnable situation.
Still, not everyone had Romesha’s knack for putting on a brave front. As Specialist Ty Carter, another Medal of Honor winner, Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out, The Florida Project) shows how fear is real factor that needs handling in the heat of battle. The first part of the film at the base follows the usual bro pattern that lets us get to know the characters, including CPT Robert Yllescas, played by Milo Gibson (son of Mel), and Daniel Rodriguez, who along with other survivors of the battle, plays himself. Lurie catches the tension of base life that can be interrupted at any moment by sudden death from enemy fire — a few major characters are killed even before the main battle starts.
British actor Orlando Bloom, head shaved and meaning business, assumes a credible Yank accent to play Captain Ben Keating, the base commander whose mission of counterinsurgency — enlisting the civilian population to help against the enemy from the inside — is lost when the shooting starts. Taking up the film’s final, high-tension hour, the Battle of Kamdesh represents Lurie’s finest achievement to date as a director, up there with Deterrence and The Contender (and enough to forgive him for his misguided remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.) There have been other films about the Afghan war, including 12 Strong, War Machine, Lone Survivor, and the superb doc Restrepo. But The Outpost gets it crucially right by bringing home the meaning of heroism as a collective action. The you-are-there ferocity of this sequence, brilliantly abetted by the prowling, handheld camerawork of Lorenzo Senatore, ranks with the best interpretations of combat on film. Your nerves will be shattered, guaranteed.