dir: Rod Lurie
War is hell, war is dumb, but it’s really exciting to watch on television. Less enjoyable in person, one imagines.
The Outpost tries really hard to capture the experience of a number of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009. It is very much based on a true story. The true story is this: at the height of their wisdom, the powers that be within the US hierarchy decided that there should be an outpost near the border with Pakistan whose purpose would be both to project power and encourage feelings of goodwill within the local Afghani community. So, look tough but also be friendly and hand out bribes whenever it seems like an opportune time. Goodwill among the locals would mean they’re less inclined to support or enable the Taliban, which is a win for everyone, except the Taliban, of course
With that intention, an outpost is set up, in probably the most exposed and vulnerable place in all of Afghanistan, so that the US’s commitment to peace in the region cannot be doubted. I mean, if you set up your camp in a place where anyone with a rifle or even a rock could potentially kill your guys from up on high, and you wouldn’t even see where the jerks were attacking you from, it shows how hardcore you are as a military and a nation. Probably.
I mean, tactically it looks insane, but maybe strategically? Who fucking knows? It is made to look insane to us, as viewers, as it is explained to the new soldiers rolling in, who look up at the mountains surrounding the post, wondering how such a terrible and isolated location was chosen, but it must have made sense to someone, at some point. No one in the flick takes credit for it, like, some white-glove wearing evil Colonel swirling a glass of brandy and smoking a Cuban cigar from the safety of his quarters back in the States, but someone somewhere thought it was a good idea.
These grunts, of course, aren’t there to reason why, theirs is just to do and die. And they will, in large numbers. Along the way, they’ll mock each other, question each other’s sexuality on a constant basis, describe each other as smelling like a “bag of dicks” and generally do a lot of idiotic things in between getting attacked by the faceless and ruthless enemy, who doesn’t want them there, for some reason.
Guys together, in groups, do a lot of dumb things, because, you know, genetics, group psychology, a whole bunch of reasons, and these guys do a lot of dumb things. I guess some of it is pretty funny, in a “performative masculinity is a strange and fucked up pantomime” kind of way. The other issue is that many of these soldiers are hard to keep apart, in your head. They bark each other’s surnames at each other most of the time, so it could be hard to sometimes know who is complaining to whom about whom, or why. Carter stands out (Caleb Landry Jones), but that’s because he looks like a consumptive skinhead with the bluest of eyes, and everyone else finds him off-putting.
Of the ones that stand out, well, there could be other factors at play. I am not making this next bit up, I swear it’s true: one of the main people we spend time with is called Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, which maybe isn’t that strange a name, but the actor who plays him is blessed with the name Scott Eastwood. Not only that, I mean, ‘Clint’ is not that common a name, but Scott Eastwood might know someone of that name, like, his dad, maybe.
What are the odds… I imagine it’s been hard to live in the man’s shadow all his life, especially once he decided acting would be his calling. But now that he looks more and sounds more like his old man, I’m sure the roles will just roll right in.
Ro, as they call him, is a no bullshit kind of guy. He’s previously been in Iraq, and is the kind of guy who was a war-weary veteran while still in his early 20s. Most of the other guys are younger than him too, whether officers or not, but almost everyone thinks he’s fucking amazing.
The easiest way to describe the film is that it is made up of two halves. The first half sets up the awful setting, and the second half is these poor shmucks trying to survive a massive attack by the Taliban. Plenty of times during the first half there are intimations as to what’s to come, mostly from a translator telling them the Taliban are coming to kill them in large numbers, but the soldiers think this is just fear talking. They are, as part of their job, also trying to train some Afghan National Army guys, but they are held in abject contempt, as cowardly jerks just waiting to turn on their occupiers, which, in retrospect, they weren’t wrong about.
There aren’t a lot of dynamics to establish between the various soldiers, in that, they’re aren’t really sub-plots or themes or tensions and such. Really, the effort given is to honour these guys, whether they survived or not, because of why they didn’t survive or not. It’s to allow the actors playing these parts to establish some of the real traits or characteristics that these chaps had, because these people lived, and they had hopes and dreams, families that loved them, people that tolerated them, pets that were indifferent to them.
Carter as the odd-man out is the one theme that’s stuck with throughout. An ex-Marine who was bumped out for fighting, who’s been demoted, who had issues with authority, he has a different energy from the other chaps, and they know it, and he knows it. He finds their fratboy antics childish, but instead of being able to accept it and laugh along and take part in the celebrations of masturbation or thinly veiled homophobia / homoeroticism, he finds himself at odds with nearly everybody.
There’s always one in a group, whether it’s a war film or not, because the group defines itself by how it treats the one nominated as the outsider. In some stories the group tormenting of the outsider bonds the group tighter, thus ensuring that they’re all right jack, even if the outsider ends up blowing their own brains out. In other stories the outsider gradually does, I dunno, something heroic or self-sacrificing, thus making the jerks in the in-crowd feel a bit guilty about themselves or their actions.
Neither fully applies here, but extra time and care is given to the characterisations and performances of Romesha and Carter because these chaps survived, and they received the highest military honours for bravery that an American serviceman or woman can receive while still alive. And you don’t get that for anything less than risking life and limb to save your brothers and sisters in arms, even if they hate your fucking guts.
That second half of the film is amazing, and brutal. It feels like a real siege, and it feels like they are totally fucked. A sequence of bad decisions cascades into a final result over time, but all that fades into smoke and fog when it comes down to a basic proposition: to do everything in your power to stay alive and to keep as many people around you alive as possible. And these chaps do their darndest to achieve just that.
There’s a lot of skill behind the camerawork in carrying us along with them, a lot of long takes and fierce editing that still, mostly, gives us a sense of place, so that we have an idea of what’s happening to whom and when. It’s really well done, and it really feels like we’re getting an accurate rendering of what these poor fuckers experienced over the course of both that awful day and the months of build up to it.
Acting wise, it’s hard to fuck something like this up, but the people they got for these roles generally do a bang on impression of what these guys were probably like, and definitely, as we see from the side-by-side comparisons at the end during the credits, they found almost supernaturally similar looking chaps to play the roles.
I would not have thought that I would be complementing Orlando Bloom for his acting, like, ever, but he is really strong as the first commanding officer we are introduced to. Despite the fact that earlier I said the flick is in two halves, that’s not really true. It’s not that I lied, it’s that it’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like the flick is in chapters, and the chapters themselves are dictated by who the captain in charge is, until they meet their untimely end, unfortunately. Each of these chapters, being Keating, Yllescas, Broward, and I guess Portis for the last part, show how profoundly the different styles and personalities of these COs impact on the soldiers serving under them, morale and a bunch of other factors, and also the uneasy relationships they had with the locals. It’s also, maybe unfair, but pretty clear, that as each one left their imprint on the outpost, they also left matters in such a state that the final result was inevitable.
In the end if you’re anything like me, someone who loathes war porn and hoorah US patriotic bullshit, but totally, viscerally responds to war stories about people risking everything for their brothers and sisters in arms, this will move you like it moved me, and you’ll appreciate that the flick doesn’t glide over the impact that these traumatic experiences have on those that are lost and those that survive. Their bravery (and the point of the film) is not that they were so good at killing the enemy, but that they desperately did everything they could to survive, and many of them did. The irony is not lost on me that in the end, just surviving means the ending is a triumph when, just thinking about it for a second, you realise, given what actually happened to the post the very next day, this was a terrible defeat on most of the levels that you can think of that matter.
But that’s not what you’re thinking as you see these haunted men talk about the ones they couldn’t save. You’re thinking “I wish none of you had been there in the first place, but I’m glad you survived, and I’m sorry about your fallen brothers. I hope you find some peace in your life.”
And honestly, that kind of stuff leaves me feeling a bit wrecked. It’s a solid, respectful film, but not much of a recruitment ad. War is hell, and no-one really wins, and thank the gods some of you got away.
8 times sometimes the lucky survive, sometimes the unlucky do out of 10
“You were one guy, with no ammunition, facing 400 Taliban, all of whom had the high ground.”
- “You can always try, though.” – that you can, my good man, that you can – The Outpost.