Film director Rod Lurie graduated from West Point in 1984 and never saw combat. But The Outpost, his latest film, pays stirring homage to the 53 intrepid soldiers who against Custer-level odds defended a military camp situated hellishly low in a valley encircled by mountains dotted with over 300 Taliban fighters. It’s a true story, as captured by Jake Tapper in his book The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. It is thus far the bloodiest battle of the war in Afghanistan.
War movies with tiny budgets can be distractedly bad, such as the abominable sequels to Sam Mendes’s Jarhead. Or, with a skilled filmmaker, a poignant story, and A-list actors, $11 million can translate into a Best Picture winner and a decade-defining gem — Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. To be sure, Lurie’s film does not break into that caliber. But he does overcome a shoestring budget (for a war film), some cringeworthy dialogue, and a few terribly awkward editing choices to deliver a COVID-19-era tour de force.
Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy’s script, much like Full Metal Jacket’s, features two stark halves: one of relative tedium, and one of bloodier mayhem. The first hour of rinse, wash, repeat, brief flashes of Taliban fire — a mortar here, couple rounds popped off there — forebodes the climactic battle, which looms over the unsuspecting soldiers. Chummy banter is interspersed throughout these moments, as Lurie invites us into the military’s hardcore frat humor. Soldiers played by Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, and others exchange crass jokes and f-words in nearly every line of dialogue, and no low-hanging fruit escapes a foul twist. As we creep toward the halfway mark, however, the dread builds. One solider, who on a patrol witnesses a gruesome death, must be evacuated owing to his deteriorated mental health, while a local named Mohammad warns the American commanders that the Taliban plot a larger assault on the camp. The ominous atmosphere draws you in — until Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son, delivers a silly line mimicking his father’s iconic guttural voice. Then the tension loses its sting. Why is Dirty Harry Callahan decked out in military gear, gazing dramatically off frame?
But whatever flaws bog down the first half — namely, clunky acting and transitions, and the cheesy indie-budget aesthetic — to nitpick here is to overlook the poignant moments the film provides amply in hour two. Prior to the climactic battle, a simple montage of the soldiers speaking on the camp phone with friends, family, and loved ones back home humanizes them, providing the best opportunity in the entire film for the audience to understand the characters who are about to stand before the gates of hell. You also begin to suspect that the longer we linger with a humorous and likable solider, the likelier it is he will die.
This montage is also when the film’s overall quality significantly improves. From the acting to the editing to the cinematography, the second half becomes riveting. Taliban insurgents cascade down the mountainside as the sun rises, and the American soldiers frantically form something of a defense strategy despite being outnumbered. If the atmosphere was fraught before, even in the monotonous hours frittered away with cigarettes and bench presses, it goes haywire here.
Though what is truly remarkable about these scenes is their coherence. There is still a precision to the actors’ blocking and a pointedness to the camera’s framing — all achieved on such a tight budget. Each transition becomes more seamless than the next, while the physical stakes of the battle ramp up, with setback after setback, injury after injury, death after death. It’s as if the editing team were collectively drunk as they cut the first half, and in the second, everyone sobered up and brought a level of sophistication rarely seen in indie-budget films, let alone blockbusters. Lurie and his cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore capture the battle with tight-tracking long shots that keep the nerves jangling and the action scintillating, achieving what film critics like to call “gritty realism.” This is no pioneering wizardry, like that found in Battle of Algiers or 1917, but the effect remains the same — it is breathtaking, stretching for 45 minutes unabated.
Then again, the wizardry is borne of the simple budgetary dilemma. Give Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins $90 million (as was the case with 1917), take a few Oscars in return and a spot in the canon for films that pushed the boundaries of technical achievement in Hollywood and elsewhere. Give Lurie and little-known Senatore a shoestring budget, and they’ll see to it that the technical virtuosity remains, if hidden by a sorry lack of both star power and tens of millions of dollars. Having had its festival premiere at South by Southwest and its theatrical release nixed owing to COVID-19, The Outpost is a true underdog, even if on-demand sales spike domestically.
Yet money isn’t the ultimate or sole validation in Hollywood, even if studios operate like investment banks. The most important quality of the film — and what will likely be its lasting legacy — is its faithful treatment and re-creation of Camp Outpost Keating, the combat, and, most important, the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their brothers and their country. Writing in the New York Times about his experience in battle and on The Outpost set, Captain Stoney Portis praised Lurie’s willingness to embrace the realism not only physically, through the production design, the cinematography, and sound design, but emotionally, by investing screen time in the characters whose lives were tragically lost. Several veterans from the battle, including Captain Chris Cordova, visited the set and consulted for the crew, adding to the film’s emotional veracity.
During the credits, the audience gets their first glimpse of the eight real-life heroes who laid down their lives in the conflict: Justin T. Gallegos, Christopher Griffin, Kevin C. Thomson, Michael P. Scusa, Vernon W. Martin, Stephan L. Mace, Joshua J. Kirk, and Joshua M. Hardt. There are also documentary interviews with the surviving soldiers that leave the audience deeply moved. It is custom for true-story war films and biopics to feature such credit sequences. This time around it is no less stirring, especially as angry mobs seek to erase our collective memory of American heroism and sacrifice.
Editor’s Note: This article originally claimed on the basis of an IMDB estimate that the budget of The Outpost was $18 million. It also claimed that the movie had grossed $200,000 internationally, an outdated figure. Both claims have been removed.