Movie review: The Outpost- Best War Film Since Saving Private Ryan

Occasionally, the blog delves into non-hockey topics and this is one of those times.

On the 11th anniversary of the Battle of Kamdesh at Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Nuristan, which cost the lives of 8 U.S. cavalrymen and resulted in the first time in 50 years which two living servicemembers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the same action, we’ll review a film that was supposed to be released in theaters in summer before COVID killed that plan. It has been available on Demand and on Apple TV and just dropped on Netflix.- KL

The Outpost is the best war film since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and the definitive account to date of America’s combat operations in the Middle East since 9/11.

The movie is based on the Jake Tapper (of CNN fame) book of the same name which chronicles the U.S. military counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in Nuristan, Afghanistan, and culminates in a pitched battle between a small 4th Infantry Division cavalry troop and hundreds of attacking Taliban on October 3, 2009. The Outpost gets a lot right about what has been going on in Afghanistan since 2001, and despite being about a specific unit and costly battle that not enough Americans know about, this movie could have depicted just about any group of U.S. soldiers in Aghanistan or even Iraq.

The film, helmed by former Army officer and West Point graduate Rod Lurie, is made by soldiers for soldiers and goes to great pains to get a lot of things right. The cast is led most notably by Scott Eastwood, Orlando Bloom and Caleb Landry Jones, but the supporting actors are superb, and include several veterans, including Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself as a member of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment.

The film opens to a written narrative that effectively foreshadows what is to come, explaining the background behind the outpost’s mission and ending with the words of a low-ranking, but prescient Army intelligence analyst who looked at the terrain around the outpost, assessed the enemy threat and said, “It should be called ‘Camp Custer’ because everyone at the Outpost was going to die.”

From there, the film introduces us to one of the main characters, Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha (played by Eastwood) as he and several other troops are being flown to the Outpost. Lurie adopts an effective technique to help the viewer remember who the key characters are by putting text of their names on screen when they first appear.

They arrive at night to the outpost, led by Captain Ben Keating (Bloom), and little time is wasted in the morning hours showing the precariousness of the situation, as the Taliban open fire on the new arrivals as they incredulously assess the fact that their new COP is surrounded on all sides by mountains, ceding a tremendous tactical advantage to any adversary. The opening shots are extremely effective in demonstrating to the viewer how the Taliban, over time, launched small, probing attacks to figure out the COP’s strengths and weaknesses (beyond the obvious being situated at the bottom of a valley). The COP’s mortar section provided effective indirect fires to neutralize the enemy attackers in several instances, and that was a fact that did not (tragically) go unnoticed by the enemy.

Bloom’s depiction of Keating is marred only by his attempt to adopt a backwoods Maine accent- something he would have been better off leaving alone altogether, but he does a good job of conveying the real Keating’s reputation as a smart, compassionate officer who cared for his men. His fate is tied to his moral compass- refusing to put his troops at risk on a mission he didn’t believe in- and as a result, another commander, Rob Yllescas is choppered into the COP, now named after Keating, to continue the fight.

It seems incomprehensible that the Army would continue operations with such an indefensible position, but the reality of the situation is much more gray than black and white. At the time things came to a head in Nuristan, the U.S. military was in the middle of the troop surge in Afghanistan, and despite the losses sustained by Army units operating out of the COP in Kamdesh, (some of which aren’t even depicted in the film) the belief that the COIN efforts were making positive inroads meant that new units kept rotating into COP Keating, even as the warning signs that the base was a prime and vulnerable high-payoff target for the Taliban, grew.

Ultimately, after several more troop commanders come and go, including the enigmatic Captain Broward, played superbly by Kwame Patterson, the stage is set for a taut, gripping battle of survival that compared to the final battle in the fictional town of Ramelle in Saving Private Ryan in terms of the anxiety and emotional stress it puts on the viewer as the vastly outnumbered men of 3-61 CAV are assaulted on all sides in a 21st century Alamo kind of attack.

What makes the Outpost such a quality and realistic film is the effort that goes into getting the details right. The uniforms the soldiers wear are correct, and when enemy attacks happen at COP Keating, the troops have to defend the wire, no matter how they are dressed- in full army combat uniform fatigues, or their physical training tees and shorts (with combat helmets and body armor of course).

The dialogue is also spot-on and free of the silly Hollywood bravado that screenwriters who never served a day in the military typically insert into the various scripts. A couple of examples that come to mind- when the new arrivals walk into the living quarters for the first time, one of the replacement soldiers, a young, eager private, shouts “Hooah!” and one of the veteran specialists rolls his eyes and responds with a “Hooah?” of his own, dripping with contempt. The response symbolizes the daily suck that so many of our line troops who served in the hinterlands of Afghanistan and Iraq had to endure- far away from the creature comforts of the big forward operating bases.

Another fine exchange comes between Sgt. Brad Larson (played by Army combat veteran Henry Hughes) and Specialist Ty Carter, who brought .50 caliber ammunition forward instead of the needed 7.62mm for the M240B machine gun position. After being upbraided for the mistake, he responds with a casual “Whatever,” and starts to walk away. Larson then calls him back, puts him at attention and corrects him in a fashion typical of an NCO to a junior enlisted soldier. It’s a small exchange, but it sets the tone for what Carter will do later in the film and is a subtle, but highly effective example of the leader/soldier dynamic that is so crucial to building cohesive teams who fight together when everything is on the line.

As good as it is, the Outpost is not perfect, and there are small quibbles with the film’s flow and overall accuracy. Having said that, if you really want to understand what Afghanistan and Iraq look(ed) like at the tactical level, the movie’s depiction of B/3-61 CAV and their heroism and sacrifice at the Battle of Kamdesh will give you the best window into both theaters of operations. No matter how realistic a movie may be, it can’t ever truly come close to the abject terror, stress and chaos of the real battlefield. However, recent films like 13 Hours (about the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi) and the Outpost come reasonably close. Stay through the end of the credits for some key interviews with some of the real players in the Battle of Kamdesh- you can see the pain and survivor’s guilt many of them still struggle with despite their total heroism in the face of near-impossible odds.

The best way to pay tribute to the men who were killed defending COP Keating and in operations prior to that fateful October day 11 years ago is to make a film that honors their memory and gets it as right as right can be. Between the solid acting and details, the Outpost delivers that and more.

2 thoughts on “Movie review: The Outpost- Best War Film Since Saving Private Ryan

  1. Kirk, thank you for this, really appreciate what you and all our warriors went through and continue to go through. Our son served in Afghanistan, but never was deployed to Iraq. With my limited knowledge, it is understood, that the Iraq war was an incredible difficult task, and I say this very proudly , our people stood tall and in my humble opinion should always stand tall and proud, you and all who served, did this great country very proud. Thank you.

    Like

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