The Outpost (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
A soldier shouts, “We won! We won!” after a B-1 bomber swooped in and eliminated the remaining Taliban that surrounded and overran PRT Kamdesh, an American outpost inconveniently located in a valley that is surrounded by the ominous Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. As this supposedly joyous proclamation is heard, the camera fixates on dead or dying faces of American soldiers while they’re carried away to their next destination. Observant and sensitive moments like this allows “The Outpost,” directed by Rod Lurie, to move beyond the confines of typical war action-drama.
Ricocheting bullets, deafening explosions, mangled bodies, and painful deaths abound. But the picture, based on the Jake Tapper’s non-fiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” is most powerful during its quiet and blink-or-you’ll-miss it moments: a soldier admitting that he no longer has it in him to go back out there and fight—yet no one blinks an eye, a leader who is an expert in finding ways to hide that he may in fact be a coward, an outcast who becomes increasingly alienated by the frat culture in his outpost, phone calls home that reveal the men’s true natures. It is the human details that make the material compelling. Credit to screenwriters Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy for consistently underscoring the fact that just because one dons an army combat uniform does not transform a person into Rambo. These are but men who must do their jobs to the best of their abilities despite impossible circumstances.
Curiously, the work is divided into chapters based on the commander in charge of PRT Kamdesh at the time, from Captain Keating (Orlando Bloom) who has a real knack for connecting with the locals and getting them to cooperate against the Talibans to Lieutenant Bundermann (Taylor John Smith) who must take over temporarily when Captain Broward (Kwame Patterson) is relieved from his command. During each chapter, we learn about the soldiers in the base by what they talk about, how they interact, what they do to pass the time, how they respond to conflicts inside and outside their walls, sometimes how they struggle with their own selves and their natures.
It is so interesting that at times I wished every key character is given internal monologue. I was especially fascinated by Specialist Carter (Caleb Landry Jones) who always finds himself as a target because he is so unlike the other guys. He is quiet, intense, often in self-isolation. When he does express genuine concerns, he is punished for crossing the line. Jones is terrific in the role—perhaps the best of the bunch. Not once do his eyes fail to tell a specific story or emotion. And his body carries the weight of his character’s many thoughts and frustrations. Will Carter break when the Talibans inevitably come down the mountains to try and exterminate them?
Another wonderful decision by the filmmakers is taking the time to emphasize geography. It isn’t enough to show the surrounding mountains that tower the outpost. At one point, we are taken outside the walls and onto higher ground. Because we see what the Talibans see, we get a chance to think how they think, especially how best to effectively attack the outpost given that the Americans not only have more weapons, they have more advanced weapons and varied resources. Thus, the base must be taken down quickly. Given the height advantage, what is the best approach to strike fear and panic, so that the enemy is compelled to rush to failure?