By John H. Foote
(****) Streaming on Apple /Now on Blu Ray
Rod Lurie is a rock-solid film director who, until The Outpost, I was not sure whether he was an artist or not. His film The Contender (2000) remains one of the finest political films ever made, and I had hoped his career might soar after that. Hollywood is a fickle place; you never understand why some films fly and others tank. Lurie’s dreadful remake of the classic Straw Dogs (1971) greatly impacted his rise, and may have set him back a few steps, but all that ground and more is recovered with The Outpost, a gritty, uncompromising war film about a terrible battle fought by 53 Americans against an army of Taliban warriors descending from the surrounding mountains.
Stationed in a remote outpost in a valley not far from the Pakistan border, the Americans are surrounded mountains, home to both locals and a growing Taliban force, never truly aware of who is their friend. Death can come at any time; a mere walk outside could see one shot by a sniper or blown apart by a bomb.
This builds a near unbearable tension, heightened with every step, which Lurie uses to explore the nightmarish existence of these soldiers in such dreadful conditions. Beyond the normal intensity of being a soldier, these guys live with the constant threat of being shot by snipers in the hills, who make a point of taking shots every day. They realize the Taliban presence is growing, meaning there will be an attack, “the big one” at some point before the men can be evacuated.
When it finally comes, we see literally hundreds of well armed Taliban warriors pouring down the mountain, the landscape teeming with them. Vastly outnumbering the Americans, the well armed Taliban have studied the camp, knowing exactly how to cripple them. And they are relentless. Panic grips the Americans merging with their terror and bravery, different men manifesting each. The searing realism is swift, intense and yes, alarming in the authenticity created by Laurie and his team.
We are introduced to each character the first time we see them with a title card naming them, which admittedly took some getting used too.
Lurie, as a director, soars in creating the environment of Afghanistan, the brutal heat, and the frayed, raw nerves of these warriors, some unable to take the tension.
The film uses a cast of young actors, including two sons of famous directors and movie stars, along with a couple real life survivors of the actual battle. Scott Eastwood, ironically, portrays a character named Clint, and gives the film’s powerful performance. Like the others he too is afraid, but thinks he understands how the Taliban will attack. What he does not count on is the terrible chaos and confusion of the conflict, and the mounting casualties. Eastwood, like his father captures the stoicism of a good soldier, his eyes betraying his fear. That said he will do anything to keep the men alive.
Milo Gibson, son of Mel, does a fine job in a small role as a young Captain sent in after the previous man has been killed. Smart, aware he does not know the area, willing to admit he does not have all the answers, his ignorance is what dooms him.
Much has been made of Orlando Bloom in the role of the doomed Captain, beloved by his men. Portraying the ferocious warrior who proves a sharp negotiator with the locals and a fearless leader, his wandering Australian accent pulled me out of the film a few times. Perhaps strong work with a voice or accent coach would have allowed Bloom to be flawless. He is unlike he has ever been before, granted, and very good, but the accent does wander.
Lurie’s direction of the film is like that of the great Sidney Lumet, economical and sparse, knowing less is more. The combat sequences are superb, frantic, filled with chaos and sudden, ruthless death, and the friendships of the men are believable and honest. Even if they dislike one another, they are forever brothers, but perhaps have seen too much war on television, the instant realism of it all shocks them.
Beautifully shot, edited with startling precision, the sound and sound editing are perfection, technically this film is flawless.
I would have liked to get to know the soldiers a little better, but still, the film takes its place among the greatest war films ever made and easily among the year’s best films.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.