On Oct. 3, 2009, a group of soldiers stationed at an isolated base in the Hindu Kush endured what would become one of the bloodiest confrontations in the U.S. war in Afghanistan: the Battle of Kamdesh, a punishing 12-hour assault from hundreds of Taliban forces that wound up costing several American lives and becoming a particularly grievous example of poor military judgment and its most dire consequences for the people forced to carry it out.
“The Outpost,” adapted from CNN anchor Jake Tapper’s book (subtitled “An Untold Story of American Valor”), revisits that day with harrowing verisimilitude as a riveting war picture and cautionary tale. Skillfully directed by Rod Lurie, this engrossing and deeply wrenching thriller dances the same fine line as most latter-day movies that want to honor service and sacrifice without lapsing into empty triumphalism. For the most part, “The Outpost” balances those competing impulses with a canny combination of unadorned bluntness and technical finesse.
In classic style, Lurie introduces the audience to the men of Bravo Troop 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, through a group of newcomers to the titular outpost, which sits at the bottom of three imposing mountains amid hostile territory. When one of the soldiers chooses his bunk, he sees the words “It doesn’t get better” carved into a piece of timber next to it; when the viewer considers how vulnerable the men’s situation is – utterly exposed and hemmed in, like sitting ducks at the bottom of a giant punch bowl – the words can’t help but sound prophetic.
What ensues is a welter of names, off-color banter and the daily routine of outpost life, wherein the saying about war – interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror – becomes jarringly literal. Wending his camera through cramped quarters and the dusty environs inside the wire, Lurie eavesdrops on the men’s sometimes intimate, sometimes uneasy camaraderie, as teasing gives way to argument, which can quickly morph into outright hostility.
The strutting, fretting, swearing and macho bravado, one senses, masks the underlying anxiety that they are far too easy prey for the mostly unseen enemy watching from virtually a grenade’s throw away. This is a movie in which casual conversation all too often presages a spate of sudden, brutal violence: When the soldiers laugh off their Afghan translator’s warnings of an imminent “big one,” there’s no doubt that carnage will surely ensue. It does, in quick, lethal outbursts. But the big one is something else altogether.
Filming in long, unbroken takes, Lurie makes “The Outpost” an impressively immersive experience, giving viewers a chance to see, up close, the pitiless chaos of combat that often looks like an indiscernible morass of smoke, dirt, blood and decimated bodies. There are only three identifiable stars in the movie: Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry Jones, who plays a pale, skinny staff sergeant named Ty Carter.
Four real-life survivors of the Battle of Kamdesh are on hand to provide authenticity to a film in which the dialogue can sound distractingly studied, even at its most offhand. (The script was written by Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson.) “Embrace the suck” is a favorite catchphrase, for obvious reasons. Another is “It’s all good,” repeated by one soldier even when he knows it’s all anything but.
The climactic battle, which unfolds over the final 45 minutes or so of “The Outpost,” is stirring and heartbreaking as men lose comrades, fight to save others and become heroes they never would have chosen to be had circumstances been less shamefully mismanaged. (After an investigation, four officers were disciplined for not taking adequate measures to secure the base.)
The most haunting issues the film raises – how on Earth anyone would put soldiers so brazenly in harm’s way; the reasoning behind keeping them so woefully under-resourced; the absurdity of asking the U.S. military to act as aggressor and diplomat; and what, ultimately, the mission was – remain long after the smoke and dust have cleared.
To paraphrase another saying: Never have so few served for so long on behalf of so many. The question, still, is to what end.
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