Is it just me, or is the war film, much like the gangster movie, going the way of the dodo bird? Of course, there are famously timeless classics of the genre as recently as 1998 with Saving Private Ryan, nevermind epics such as The Bridge On The River Kwai, Patton, Paths Of Glory, Platoon and Apocalypse Now. The 21st century has also blessed us with a few standout entries like Dunkirk, The Hurt Locker and Fury, and perhaps it is some kind of cognitive bias on my part, but even with these additions they don’t appear to be anywhere near as ubiquitous or as cherished by the general public as they once were. As more superhero and high-concept sci-fi oriented works precipitate the majority of chins to wag, more old-school, once comprehensively adulated genres are waining, and that’s a big shame. War films, in terms of media at least, are the central authority in the depiction of valour and transcendent brotherhood, much like classic mob films are an accurate depiction of stark raving, greed-fuelled sociopathy.
The Outpost, a brand new release from director Rod Lurie, is a fact-based account of the Battle of Kamdesh, a major conflict incident that took place in Afghanistan during October 2009. Like a modern-day Zulu, a tiny squad of American soldiers held their own against hundreds of Taliban insurgents at a remote outpost in the Nuristan province. It was one of the deadliest battles to occur during the Global War on Terror, and this dramatisation proves to be a superbly acted, tightly paced and nerve-shredding experience.
Clinton Romesha (Scott Eastwood) is a staff sergeant in the 61st Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army. Already fatigued from a lengthy deployment, Romesha (or ”Ro”, as he is predominantly referred to) leads his men to their latest assigned stop of Combat Outpost Keating, a small military station in the town of Kamdesh. Situated at the bottom of an enormous valley, COK is essentially a fish-in-a-barrel opportunity for surrounding enemy combatants, a fact that Ro is deeply agitated by.
Under orders from outpost overseer Captain Benjamin Keating (Orlando Bloom, in a performance I actually liked for once), Ro and his boys, including the edgy, confrontational and possibly unstable Specialist Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), all engage in the typical pastimes of roughhousing, shooting the breeze, having quintessentially hyperaggressive bust-ups and missing their loved ones terribly. Romesha is credited by former colleagues for his sharp sense of humour and sang-froid, and Eastwood infuses the role with a remarkable charisma that is uncannily evocative of his dad (seriously, Clint’s mannerisms are eerily replicated here, squint and all).
Word comes down from the top brass that the outpost is to be closed, an announcement that is music to the ears of all the lads, and with the worst luck in the world, it is also news that finds its way into the hands of the local Taliban stronghold. Afghani anti-Taliban rebels have warned the men at Keating of impending attacks in the past, leading to accusations of ‘crying wolf’ and a gradually eroding empathy, especially considering that hometime is nigh given the shutdown. And then a bomb hits. What follows is an immersive, nose-in the-dirt, scary as hell firefight that evokes the uncomfortable intimacy of Black Hawk Down, and while Kamdesh wasn’t as devastating a failure as Mogadishu, it is still nothing short of an abject nightmare.
With strong technical flair and a finger on the pulse of war’s visceral horror, Lurie and co. do an excellent job of respectfully and realistically portraying the brothers in arms who were present on that particular day’s death-dance. Every performance is robust and emotive, the camaraderie and tension achieving the apex objective of inducing forgetfulness that you’re merely watching a motion picture. As with the best examples of this kind of tale, even the daily minutiae is commanding and injecting of levity, such as one commanding officer instructing the underlings to take bottles full of his urine to the outside burn pit or the sergeant who forces a grunt to do endless push-ups as punishment for ”looking” at a photo of the man’s wife. It’s a fitting balance, the chipper suspension of seriousness being par for the course as opposed to some sort of insensitive gung-ho reverie about the proceedings.
I’ve encountered a couple of reviews that lambast the film as being ‘your typical story of American heroism’, making charges of disproportionate sympathy on behalf of the U.S. troops whilst depicting the Afghani people as outright villains. I’m unsure of what particular hallucinogens these critics had been ingesting because I found nothing remotely resembling their experience unfold on the screen. None of the soldiers here are perfect, they’re human beings with as many foibles as the next person, and there is appropriate castigation at hand for behaviour that is deemed unbecoming of a G.I. There are even sequences of extended conservation and peacemaking that occur between COK personnel and local tribal elders who have disdain for the Taliban but aren’t especially thrilled about having the American military rampaging all over their nation either, and as far as I’m concerned, a one-dimensional portrait of conflict would not be inclusive of such moments.
As far as the Taliban insurgents being portrayed as faceless villains goes, it’s pretty axiomatic that a dramatisation from the point of view of U.S. Army personnel would utilise this aesthetic. It’s intended as a depiction of one particular event as opposed to a comprehensive war critique, and while there was some level of conscription of locals on the part of the Taliban (which is tragic and should not be undermined), they were ultimately a militia of psychopathic religious zealots that plenty of Afghani nationals wanted assistance getting rid of. I’m personally opposed to war, but the military does not select their engagements, they do as they’re told, and I don’t believe it’s too controversial to state that a regime that administered corporal punishment to women in the street and hanged families for not toeing the line is somewhat difficult to depict in a humanised manner.
This is not entertainment, it’s a 2-hour anxiety ride, and a highly believable, reverent and poignant one at that. I mentioned the younger Eastwood being spookily resemblant of his father, but when all is said and done, he is a staunch performer in his own right and the perfect choice for a cinematic rendering of leadership. It’s a war film done right, a gripping display of teamwork, the die-hard struggle to retain optimism and humanity and a stark reminder of what many forgotten individuals have been made to sacrifice. Certainly an outstanding entry in the so-far lacklustre slew of films this year.