Movie Review: 'The Outpost'
The Outpost - Amazon Video 2020.
Short take: Solid war movie based on true events, ‘Zulu’ meets ‘Black Hawk Down’, offering a refreshing take on the subject of heroism.
Scott Eastwood as S/Sgt Clinton Romesha
You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to realise, in war, you take the high ground. Yet in ‘The Outpost’, a remote US fire base in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans are positioned at the bottom of a valley. The high ground surrendered, the Taleban use it to constantly snipe at the Americans. The beleaguered GI's only counter is a mortar team (who live in a pit dubbed ‘Mortaritaville’), capable of showering the hillsides with bombs… as long as strict RoEs (Rules of Engagement) are observed. Yet the Western fantasy, that a successful counterinsurgency can be won in a distant tribal kleptocracy, trumps basic military doctrine.
A sniper's eye view of The Outpost
In this respect, the American base is an obvious metaphor for Allied involvement in Afghanistan – hopeless and hobbled, commanders indifferent to the reality of the situation. Wily tribal elders play an age-old game, playing off the Taleban against the Americans who they continually rinse for money. Some of the elders have yet to realise the Americans aren’t the Russians who invaded 40 years earlier, inured as they are to strange armies arriving in their mountains.
The movie, directed by Rod Lurie, doesn’t try anything fancy in telling the story of the Battle of Kamdesh in 2009. His approach is workmanlike, letting the characters dominate the narrative. First, we meet the troops of Combat Outpost Keating, named after (the real) Captain Ben Keating, played by a chirpy Orlando Bloom, who gets a bit more screen time than he did in Black Hawk Down. The enlisted men are a familiar bunch to anyone who watches too many war movies. There’s the macho Latino guy (Jacob Scipio, playing Sgt. Gallegos), the bespectacled specialist applying to be an army pilot (Scott Alda Coffey, as Specialist Micheal Scusa) and the troubled guy with an attitude problem (Caleb Landry Jones, turning in a compelling performance as Sgt. Ty Carter) – except these are real people. There’s even a rock-steady NCO, S/Sgt Clint Romesha, played by Scott Eastwood. I know, Clint Eastwood’s son playing a guy called Clint. Go figure, as the Americans say. Scott Eastwood, on occasion, narrows his eyes like his dad and suddenly becomes Clint Eastwood – the lad was quite literally born to play a gnarly combat leader, something he does with aplomb. Anyway, if I was stuck up a mountain with lots of angry people trying to kill me, I could do worse than be with Clinton Romesha.
Scott Eastwood (1st right - SSgt Romesha) and Caleb Landry Jones (2nd right - Spc Ty Carter)
The build-up to the battle takes up the bulk of the movie, but never feels laboured. A rhythm is marked by new commanders coming and going, usually as casualties. The Outpost’s officers are all captains, a relatively junior rank, yet are expected to be military leaders, politicians and diplomats. They’re mission-focussed and decent, apart from the risk-averse Captain Broward (who refuses to leave his command post and pisses into bottles to avoid entering the compound).
Meanwhile, for the enlisted men, life alternates between violence and boredom; soldiers bicker, engage in homoerotic hugging, and water-board each other for laughs. Masturbation and bodily functions, shit-burning detail, fear and chain-smoking, ten minutes on a satellite phone to a lonely partner 6000 miles away. All the while, soldiers are sniped at by insurgents who turn up at the next ‘Shura’ to sit at the back and grin while officers give the elders envelopes full of dollars. IEDs blow up patrolling GIs, who are ordered to turn the other cheek in return. General Stanley McChrystal, who changed the rules of engagement, comes in for a fair bit of stick. All of a sudden, the Brad Pitt version of McChrystal in ‘War Machine’ begins to make a bit more sense.
Lurie’s direction plays a horror movie game with us. When a soldier walks across the outpost, or gets in a vehicle, or puts on his body armour… you expect them to get shot. And, cleverly, it’s more anxiety-inducing than scary, the feeling awful stuff’s gonna happen eventually – just when? And to who? And when the Taleban learn the Americans intend to abandon the base, they plot a bloody farewell.
The armoured Humvees take serious punishment, used as static MG posts
I won’t spoil the ending, except to comment on how ‘The Outpost’ depicts heroism. This, for me, was the most interesting part of the film, staying with me long after the end credits rolled (along with images of the men who died, those terribly sad army photographs in front of the Stars and Stripes). Some war movies show bravery as a conscious decision by the protagonist – they’re heroes, doing heroic things, right? Or is a situation placed before the individual? The movie asks us a question; is heroism, for most, a reactive experience? A test of raw character? We’re given two different studies – Romesha takes the battle to a relentless enemy, a skilled tactician and fighter. On the other hand, Carter focusses – almost psychotically – on rescuing an injured comrade. Heroism is presented as a series of incremental actions, not a single feat. Romesha keeps his head in the midst of madness: is this heroism, the sustained demonstration of judgement and action? Or is it Carter’s reflexive selflessness? Carter isn’t an agreeable or likeable person, so another question is asked: are his flaws, his stubbornness, an advantage in that moment? I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what awards these men did or didn’t win for their actions. As you can see, I mightily approve of this movie. It's a just tribute to the fallen, whatever one might think of the war in Afghanistan.
Okay, now I’ve powered-down my Mark Kermode setting, time for some war movie / military history geek observations.
1. I was surprised to learn the soldiers who fought the battle weren’t de facto infantrymen. There were ‘Cavalry Scouts’ from the 61st Cavalry Regiment. Clinton Romesha, for example, originally trained as a tank crewman.
2. Despite that, the only army vehicles you see in the movie are a truck and two Humvees. The Humvees are used as static sentry posts, armed with .50 cal machineguns, and were capable of sustaining a shitload of enemy small arms and RPG fire. I suppose getting a Bradley to that location would’ve been pretty difficult.
3. One of the stars of the show is a Latvian army military advisor working with the Afghans. He has a beard and brings some Viking charm to proceedings. There really were Latvians at the base in 2009.
4. I was amazed at how lightly armed the base was. One mortar, two .50 cal MGs and some M240s (the US version of the GPMG). One of the men tries to deploy a rocket, but gets shot. The GIs have UGLs and plenty of grenades, but there’s no GMGs. Nor do the Americans have any snipers or counter-snipers, except when Romesha commandeers and Afghan soldier’s SVD / Dragunov.
5. I remain convinced the US Army camouflage uniforms issued at that time were crap. I wrote on the subject here.