The Outpost (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): In the middle of a hell called war

“The Outpost” turns out to be more engaging and thoughtful than I expected. While this is surely another tense, gritty, and brutal modern American war drama, it distinguishes itself to some degree as tactfully handling its story and characters with considerable skill and respect, and it surely does more than merely presenting those brave soldiers simply trying to do their duty and survive in the middle of one grave danger.

At the beginning, the movie gives us some basic background knowledge on Combat Outpost Keating, a US Army outpost located in a remote spot around the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As being at the bottom of three steep mountains surrounding it, this outpost was pretty vulnerable to the attacks from the Taliban right from the start, and, as often depicted in the film, its US soldiers had to be constantly watchful of any sudden ambush upon their outpost.

As the soldiers of the outpost are going through another anxious day after the opening nocturnal scene, the screenplay Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy, which is adapted from Jake Tapper’s nonfiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor”, casually introduces a bunch of them to us one by one. I must point out that it is initially rather difficult to distinguish one soldier from another as the camera quickly glides from one soldier to another, cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore did a smooth job of immersing us into their small world, and we accordingly come to get the sense of place and people even while struggling to remember those names popping up here and there on the screen.

As we become more accustomed to their small world, the movie gradually fleshes out some of its soldier characters a bit. Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) is the one who holds the ground under his commanding officers including Captain Benjamin D. Keating (Orland Bloom), and you can instantly discern that he is the one to depend on no matter what happens. In case of Specialist Ty Michael Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), he is as clumsy as I was during my military training period in late 2007, but he later turns out to be less silly than he seems at first, especially when he muses on how bumpy his life has been since his childhood.

Meanwhile, the movie pays some attention to the ongoing efforts of these and other soldiers on a nearby village and its local people. Representing the outpost as its commander, Captain Keating has sincerely tried to earn the hearts and minds of these local people who clearly do not trust American soldiers much, and he and his men eventually manage to make a small but significant progress, but, not so surprisingly, that achievement is soon damaged by a number of negative factors besides the Taliban.

And the outpost remains in constant danger as usual. While the soldiers can be relaxed a little from time to time, their relatively peaceful moments are usually bound to be disrupted by another attack from those Taliban soldiers, who, day by day, keep getting better in attacking the outpost with more weapons and equipments. As frequently warned by a local guy, it looks like there will soon be a really massive attack on the outpost, but, so far, that has not happened yet, and everyone in the outpost becomes less interested in the continuing warning from that local guy.

Nevertheless, they are still well aware of how easily they get killed at any moment, as going through a series of precarious episodic moments. They are also frustrated to learn that they are ordered to stay more in this dangerous place. At one point, they are promised that the outpost will be gone within a month, but then, what do you know, that plan gets postponed.

After slowly dialing up the level of tension during its first half, the movie goes all the way as all hell breaks loose as expected during the second half, and director Rod Lurie and his crew members serve us a number of vivid, striking moments amidst lots of bangs and smokes. Instead of resorting to choppy editing and shaky camera work, the movie fluidly follows its individual characters in steady and continuous ways during these moments, and the overall result deserves to be compared with “Black Hawk Down” (2001) and “1917” (2019).

And it surely helps that the cast members in the film are all quite convincing in their visceral depiction of fear and courage on the screen. Except Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, and Orland Bloom, most of the cast members are not so recognizable to us, but they are all solid in their ensemble performance while naturally generating the palpable mood of camaraderie among their solider characters, and that is the main reason why what is shown to us around the end of the film is poignant.

Overall, “The Outpost”, which is incidentally Lurie’s first film since his 2011 remake of “Straw Dogs” (1971), succeeds as much as intended, and I admire the skills and efforts put into the film besides Lurie’s competent and thoughtful direction, which thankfully prevents the film from becoming a superficial jingoistic glorification of American military exploit like “Lone Survivor” (2013) and many other similar war flicks during recent years. Yes, the US government and Army really screwed up in not only Iraq but also Afghanistan, but we should not forget that there were also many people who showed our better sides as courageously sacrificing themselves in that mess, and the movie sincerely and skillfully respects that.

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