The post-9/11 war genre has a new defining entry, yet this robust little film – which cost a mere $5 million – won’t enjoy the exposure of The Hurt Locker. And that’s a pity, because The Outpost revitalizes the canon, landing as a blend of Jarhead and Hamburger Hill, John Irvin’s Vietnam film from 1987.
Of these two, it is actually Hill that is most pertinent, for it recounts the battle of Hill 937, a fiercely defended area that cost the lives of over 100 US and allied troops but was abandoned shortly thereafter. Such strategic idiocy would be replicated 40 years later during the war in Afghanistan, especially at Combat Outpost Keating, an army camp that was built at the bottom of a valley – a clear defensive weakness that would be dubbed ‘obviously indefensible’ in later government reports.
The Outpost tells the story of this camp in distinct one-hour halves. The first depicts camp life and the daily power struggles that came with it. The performances’ uniform excellence make a quick impression here. This isn’t your typical ‘rag tag’ vibe; each actor is totally real and understated. Even Orlando Bloom, who isn’t a natural choice for such a film, assumes the role of Captain Ben Keating with charismatic naturalism and a resonant southern drawl.
The second half depicts the events of 3 October 2009. This was the Battle of Kamdesh, which saw 300 hardened Taliban fighters attack the camp with mortars and small arms fire, killing eight Americans and producing two Medal of Honors. The carnage of that day is presented in almost one hour of non-stop combat, yet this isn’t another homage to the style of Saving Private Ryan. There are no ‘I want my momma’ moments or any other showy displays of suffering. Instead, just like with its characterwork, The Outpost sticks close to the historical record and uses a realist style that is appropriately harsh and chaotic.
Much of this style comes from cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore, whose drone footage adds a fluid dynamism to the aesthetic, especially during a sequence across a nearby bridge. The music is good, too – subtle and ominous. But again, the foundational strength of Rod Laurie’s film is in the characters and performances. Caleb Landry Jones does some of his best work yet as SSG Ty Carter, but most attention will be paid to Scott Eastwood and Milo Gibson, two chips off the old Hollywood block who play SSG Clint Romesha and CPT Robert Yllescas, respectively.
Both look and sound like their fathers, especially Eastwood. He has the squint, the crow’s feet and the gritting teeth. Even the way he says “yeah…” is pure Clint. He may be weary of such comparisons, but there’s no denying them. Is this genetic or studied? Probably both. Either way, it’s a niche one for the nature vs. nurture debate.
This star power intrigue applies no varnish to the film’s authenticity. We fully understand that Outpost Keating was a place few people would want to be. Aside from the obvious dangers they faced, Keating was a hive of vulgar authority, especially under the tutelage of CPT Broward (Kwame Patterson), a hardened Iraq veteran and chain of command jobsworth. He also had a thing for urinating in bottles and having his men take them to the burn pit. Sir, yes, sir!
It is during this period that the Taliban fire regular pot shots at the camp; a nuisance form of combat that seeks to gauge the Americans’ response. Everyone in the camp knows that a full force attack is coming and when it does, it reveals the true nature of men we’ve become genuinely invested in.