The Outpost (2020)
Directed by Rod Lurie
Most American war movies serve as propaganda to convince Americans to pledge automatic and unconditional allegiance to soldiers despite the flaws of each soldier or of the military as a whole. The same goes for cop shows, which a new study revealed makes up about half of all network TV dramas. We’d all be better off if we stopped treating human beings as heroes and started remembering that doing something good doesn’t give you a free pass to be a bad person. Tear down all the statues, too.
The problem with the first hour of “The Outpost,” based on CNN journalist Jake Tapper’s best-selling book, is that anyone who has ever been called a “snowflake” by a baby boomer is unlikely to find any enjoyment in the racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic jokes shared by the mostly white and all-male unit. Their gross display of toxic masculinity might just be “boys being boys” to some, but for me, it was an ill-timed reminder of everything going wrong in the country right now. I don’t like to look for political meaning in every movie I see, but when the movie is about something as politically charged as the U.S. military, it’s hard not to think about it the whole time.
Set during the height of the War in Afghanistan in 2006, “The Outpost” begins by introducing us to an Army unit in Afghanistan whose outpost sits in a valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountain range. The outpost’s positioning makes its residents like sitting ducks, so when the Taliban spends the movie’s second half surrounding and outnumbering (6 to 1) the American soldiers, we know the U.S.A. has her work cut out for her.
While the first hour is spent setting the scene and introducing us to the rambunctious and too-often-offensive characters, the second hour treats viewers to a lengthy battle between nearly 300 Afghan fighters and about 50 U.S. soldiers. It plays out like “Black Hawk Down” or “13 Hours,” with a near-constant barrage of bullets flying from one direction or the other. It’s non-stop action. This is also when I decided that the only character I liked and was rooting for was Caleb Landry Jones’s Staff Sergeant Ty Carter. Carter had established earlier that he wasn’t the type to make crude jokes and at one point even acknowledged that the enemy fighters had the same motives as our guys. It was refreshing to hear that viewpoint in a 21st-century war movie—usually, you have to watch one from pre-9/11 to hear anything like that. But beyond politics, Jones’s performance is horrifyingly real, like someone who has actually seen war. Scott Eastwood still hasn’t shown he’s got even half his father’s talent—but at 34 (Scott’s current age), Clint had just starred in his first big movie, “A Fistful of Dollars,” and his best work was still to come…so maybe there’s hope for Scott yet. But like so many war movies, we barely get the chance to know any characters before they’re thrown into battle. Once the fighting begins, there’s no hope that they’ll find the time to share any details about their past or let the audience in. Instead, we have a few early moments to make our impressions. You’ll remember one soldier as “the one with glasses” and another as “the one with the bulldog” and then there’s “Clint Eastwood’s son” and that’s all you have to go on. When they start dying (spoiler alert; some of them die), you hardly knew them anyway.
“The Outpost” brings a whole lot of firepower. That might win in a battle, but it’s rarely the key to making a memorable war movie.