Sunday, 15 November 2020

The Outpost (2020) - Movie Review

This one is a bit of professional curiosity on my part, as I was initially going to gloss over this one-of-millions war thriller… until I noticed that this might have some of the highest praise of any Millennium Films production I've come across. Yes, the studio that I have come to associate with some of the blandest right-wing-soapbox action guff of the last several years seems to have finally stumbled onto a winner. And having seen it for myself, I can certainly agree that this is a production worth being proud of.

Set in 2006 on Combat Outpost Keating, an American outpost in Northern Afghanistan, the cast tap into a familiar sense of macho bonding that is a staple of war cinema. And as portrayed by these actors, it makes for one of the strongest examples of this warrior mentality I’ve covered on here. Scott Eastwood as Sgt. Romesha makes for a solid and commanding presence, while Orlando Bloom as Cpt. Keating… okay, that American accent is a bit suss, but he follows suit as a shoulder-to-shoulder leader of the troops. And then there’s Caleb Landry Jones, who once again steals the show, albeit through an odd bit of casting genius. He usually plays the kookiest man in the room, the outsider amongst outsiders, and here, that translates into the one who, more than anyone else, questions the shitty situation they’re all in.

The titular outpost is in a mountain valley surrounded on all sides; the lowest point in an area where having the high ground means having the combat advantage. It’s like a death funnel that could get poured into at any moment, and that tension keeps this two-hour ride incredibly suspenseful. From the sudden shots from solitary soldiers to the all-out assault in the finale’s depiction of the Battle of Kamdesh, it reiterates how perilous this location is and how quickly it can all go wrong. The image of a soldier firing at the Taliban, buck-ass-naked from his interrupted shower, is an embodiment of the endless danger and macho solidarity that fuels the production as a whole.

How that machoness itself is expressed is quite interesting as well, as it walks a very fine line between homosexual-as-weakness and gay-jokes-as-bonding; like if the Game Grumps starred in a war flick. It is reliably entertaining and pretty funny to see these soldiers using the most extreme male-on-male activity both as punishment (two shirtless soldiers circling each other as they repeatedly say “I love you”) and as support (“Okay, bullet to your head, if you had to fuck one guy, who would it be?” “Don’t need the bullet: Chuck Norris.”). It may be “frat boy shit”, in the words of Jones’ Ty M. Carter, but in a scenario where instantaneous decision-making and trust between officers is vital… if it works, it works.

And on the note of Carter’s choice words about this whole thing, where the film wins some unexpected points is how it depicts the battle in context to the rest of the still-continuing War in Afghanistan. While it takes ample time out to show the soldiers trying to keep the peace with the locals (a welcome inclusion, seeing as Muslims tend to be the main targets of extremists like the Taliban), it also proffers how much the presence of these Americans on their own tends to heighten the tension of those in the area, a rather brazen admission of the effect American intervention has had over the last few decades in the Middle East. It even reaches a downright harrowing point where Carter brings up that both sides, the U.S. military and the Taliban, are fighting with the notion that God/Allah is on their side. And while they both can’t be right, there’s a chance that they’re both wrong. “God’s plan is our chaos”, as one of the soldiers exclaims.

For a depiction of a particularly dour chapter in the history of the Afghan war, this is capital work from all involved. The acting is top-notch, to the point of bringing out some of the best performances of its cast’s respective filmographies, the writing balances brotherly warmth and critical sharpness to make some cutting statements about the nature of war, and the production values all link arms to create a tense and brutal experience that never feels like it’s dragging its feet.

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