"The Outpost" Review: Film captures major Afghanistan battle

As the opening text in the new drama The Outpost informs viewers, the United States set up outposts in Afghanistan in 2006 to help stem the flow of weapons and members of the Taliban from Pakistan. The film tells the story of one such outpost — established in Kamdesh — where an isolated base was surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains.

In the opening moments of the film, a new group of soldiers arrives at the outpost, only to realize how horrific its location is. Since the base is surrounded by mountains, it’s an area that isn’t easy to travel to and the mountains provide perfect cover for Taliban insurgents who want to attack the military. 

In fact, some of the soldiers tell newcomers to the base that the area is attacked daily by Taliban members in the mountains, who just want to take their shot at the Americans.

Outpost leader First Lt Benjamin Keating (Orlando Bloom) tries to maintain morale but it's difficult when the soldiers face threats every day from Taliban fighters and the dangerous terrain that surrounds them. Despite these dangers, the men build friendships amongst themselves and help conduct diplomacy with the locals. The outpost includes a number of commanding characters including the outgoing Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) and the more introverted Staff Sgt Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones). Despite personality conflicts, these men have to live with each other and protect one another to survive.

The first hour of the film sets the stage, showing the day-to-day life of these soldiers. From dangerous missions to fraternal hijinks to physical fights between them, the feature casts light on how each of these men make it from day to day.

In doing this, director Rod Lurie invites viewers to see how disparate their days are. At times, the activities at the outpost can feel mundane and routine. At other times, gunfire erupts crashing into their routine like thunder crashing through a sunny day.

After the first hour and viewers become accustomed to the unsettled aspect of these characters’ lives, the story changes shape completely as the outpost gets attacked. The feature jolts into high gear as these characters — who were well-established in the first hour — are caught in one of the biggest battles of the Afghanistan war.

The camera here captures the chaos of the battle while sticking closely to the characters. Lurie captures the character movements using one-shots that stay with several of the characters as they move from location to location, trying to save their fellow soldiers and move firepower from one spot to another. By remaining with the characters, the director invites the viewer to see what the soldiers see — enemies running down the mountainside, bullets firing from everywhere — and understand the devastating odds against them.

Although the cast is uniformly solid, it’s Caleb Landry Jones who truly stands out in a supporting performance. The establishment of Carter’s personality — his standoffish personality and his disengagement from his military brothers — in the first hour really pays off when the character struggles to save the lives of his fellow soldiers in the second hour. The character's closing moments onscreen truly reveal a great depth to his personality.

By capturing everyday life at the outpost in the first hour and the horrors of battle in the second hour, Lurie has created something truly memorable with this film. The screenplay by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy (adapted from the book by Jake Tapper) feels a little uneven in the first hour but that ultimately pays off in the action-packed second hour.

The film isn’t about simply capturing a major battle. It’s about capturing something more intimate: the day-to-day operations lives of a group of soldiers and how they ultimately band together when their unit comes under attack.

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