Located in a valley at the base of three mountains in northeastern Afghanistan, U.S. Army Combat Outpost Keating was by all standards indefensible. Yet on Oct. 3, 2009, some 50 U.S. soldiers held off hundreds of enemy fighters in a 12-hour firefight that resulted in Bravo Troop 3-61 Cavalry becoming one of the most decorated units in the Afghanistan war, with two living service members receiving the Medal of Honor from the same battle for the first time in 50 years.
The story of that day, known as the Battle of Kamdesh, as well as how those soldiers came to be there and the fateful aftermath, became the subject of television newsman Jake Tapper's exhaustively detailed 2012 book "The Outpost." That book has now been adapted for the screen by director Rod Lurie from a screenplay by Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, with the movie staying tightly focused on the base. Lurie was himself a graduate of West Point before going on to careers as a journalist and filmmaker, which does make him uniquely suited for this story.
As so often happens in military movies, most notoriously in "Black Hawk Down," the shaved heads and helmets of the soldiers renders most of the actors indistinguishable, and the characters bleed together. Orlando Bloom does make a strong impression as 1st Lt. Benjamin Keating, the upstanding leader for whom the base will come to be named, and Caleb Landry Jones adds an additional character to his ongoing gallery of struggling misfits. While the cast includes a number of celebrity offspring -- Scott Eastwood, Milo Gibson, Scott Alda Coffey, Will Attenborough and James Jagger -- they largely fail to make much impression as individuals. A number of the actual soldiers from Camp Keating appear in the movie as well.
Scott Eastwood, right, in "The Outpost."
Scott Eastwood, right, in "The Outpost."(Screen Media)
"The Outpost" is a visceral battle picture but little more. Tapper's book more strongly centered on the futility of the entire endeavor, up and down the chain of command, while also pulling back to chronicle the anxious families of the soldiers back home. By comparison, Lurie's movie feels stuck in place.
Too many scenes meant to depict the bonds among soldiers come across as macho posturing. By the time the main siege begins and the movie most springs to life, there is already a sense of monotony and tedium that is difficult to get past. Whether or not that is a true reflection of life at a remote military base, it does not elevate the story's dramatic impact.
Thanks to lightweight cameras that stay close to the soldiers, Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore create an extremely vivid grammar of combat, with an immersive and relentless intimacy. Inventive, swooping use of a camera-mounted drone maps the geography of the camp with clarity and care.
Minus the absurd ironies of "Catch-22," the hallucinatory madness of "Apocalypse Now," the clockwork precision of "Dunkirk" or the existential grimness of the recently rereleased 1985 Soviet film "Come and See," there is something missing about "The Outpost." The movie certainly does not glorify the horrors of war, but in placing camaraderie and brotherly bonds above all else it feels like it is somehow missing a larger point.
Especially from the vantage of 2020, the movie's depiction of the events from 2009 occurs in something of a vacuum, with only fleet acknowledgement of larger objectives, or the basic question of why they are there. As a soldier says at one point, their only mission is to survive.