The haunting perils of war are a common fixture in mainstream cinema, with efforts like Dunkirk and 1917 displaying the various technical approaches to the complex subject matter. While there are countless examples of period war titles, few have captured the zeitgeist of modern conflicts, often relying on blind jingoism to deliver an agreeable message for popcorn-munching audiences (12 Strong and Act of Valor are primary offenders). The latest boot-on-the-ground offering The Outpost focuses on the US’s ongoing strife in Afghanistan, delivering an accomplished effort that earnestly honors its real-life subjects.
Set in 2009 (and based on Jake Tapper’s novel), The Outpost follows a unit of U.S. soldiers working in a vulnerable base of operations. Their day-to-day lives consist of attempts to make peace with the locals while fending off persistent Taliban forces. Mere days before the team is set to abandon the mission, an overwhelming army raids the base, leaving the soldiers in a desperate fight for survival. Remembered as “The Battle of Kamdesh”, the conflict would go on to be the bloodiest conflict of the Afghan War.
The Outpost differs from its contemporaries by establishing a grounded viewpoint of its subjects’ daily lives. Eric Johnson’s screenplay keeps contrived melodrama and specified dialogue to a minimum, focusing more on bawdy banter and intimate disclosures to create a genuine rapport between the characters. Johnson also portrays the day-to-day doldrums of soldier life, following their work as well-intended ambassadors trying to find common ground with the nearby locals. It’s refreshing to see a war film focus on the difficult process of two sides working together in the midst of conflict, with both combating their innate suspicion of the other party in attempts to make progress.
Moments of quiet normalcy are consistently interrupted by enemy attacks, with a series of skirmishes displaying the routine dangers facing the ragtag outpost. Director Rod Lurie wisely builds upon small-scale action beats until the hour mark, portraying a sense of danger that boils into the infamous conflict. Once Lurie’s depiction of the Kamdesh conflict begins, he unleashes a relentless onslaught of pulsating combat with a dizzying fury. Through this chaos, Lurie adeptly walks the finite line of depicting war’s carnage without ever glorifying it, applying frenetic tracking shots that place audiences in the shoes of its central heroes with harrowing results.
Lurie promptly renders a substantive throughline with his action rather than letting it stand aimlessly as senseless violence. Through the soldier’s desperate sacrifice to one another (including the peers they aren’t particularly fond of), their remarkable heroism is displayed without having to utter a contrived message. The well-tuned cast also helps to develop a genuine bond, with Get Out star Caleb Landry Jones excelling with his emotionally-moving work.
Despite these strengths, The Outpost still features its fair share of technical blemishes. The over-reliance on text to introduce new characters and chapters comes off as clunky, often leading to several transitions that lack grace. I admire Lurie’s meat and potatoes approach to his subject matter, but his presentation lacks the depth and artistry to convey one of the genre’s top tier iterations.
Assembled with a heaping of passion and technical craft, The Outpost offers a sturdy portrait of wartime struggles that honors its central subjects.
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