Outpost

You could do worse than watch The Outpost on Netflix as a way of thinking about the West and the Rest. Like most action war films, the filmmakers place the audience firmly in the position of the story’s protagonists. The obligatory hand-held camera work and high frame rate consolidate this perspective, producing a cinematically immersive experience. The dialog and characterization in The Outpost‘s opening minutes is equally familiar to anyone who has watched a few war movies. The soldiers are identified by surname and given a few seconds apiece in medium close-up, often with trivial yet character-establishing dialog. We hear accents, see facial expressions, and are given a name to attach to these minor details. The film wants us to care about its characters, though you can see even at this early point that it won’t direct our attention away from the coming fight to consider the lives of those they love back home. A succinct line of dialog confirms this when a seasoned enlisted man, Sgt. Romesha (Scott Eastwood) tells the younger soldiers not to think about their wives until they leave the outpost.

I have not read the source text for this film, celebrity-journalist Jake Tapper’s book of the same name. Suffice to say Tapper’s work on television and as a writer has not been characterized by excessive skepticism of US foreign policy, much less a fully articulated critique of its goals and methods. Like many elite media figures– and US media in general– Tapper’s career has been woven into the 20 year conflict that was once called the War on Terror by George W. Bush and was then rebranded Overseas Contingency Operations by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama. Among many other honors Tapper has received an Emmy for a video segment on the killing of Osama bin Laden. He now enjoys a comfortable seat in the epicenter of the American Empire, Washington, D.C.

All of this context is just to say: we know what we’re getting into here.

An early firefight that ends quickly conveys that the dangers are significant and also lets us witness how different characters behave under fire. Of particular note are Gallegos, a very competent and pessimistic immigrant from Mexico, and Carter, who is immediately recognizable as a screw-up: pants-less, he brings the wrong ammunition to a gunner. There is also the obligatory “cherry”– Mace, an inexperienced soldier– who makes a mistake and is knocked around for it by Gallegos. The only surprising part of this for me was realizing that Carter is played by Caleb Landry Jones, an actor I had seen in Brandon Cronenberg’s medical-horror film Antiviral.

Character types are a crucial component of masterplots. The figures of the Veteran (Romesha/Gallegos), the Misfit (Carter), and the Rookie (Mace) occur across different narratives including sports dramas and school films– essentially most stories with an institutional setting. A fourth term can be added to this typology: the True Believer, a noble victim whose death underscores the seriousness of the dramatic situation and sobers the soldiers, who have thus far largely been portrayed as youthfully exuberant. Though the True Believer and the Rookie can be combined in the same character, in The Outpost this role falls to Orlando Bloom as Capt. Keating. Sent on a pointless mission to drive a large truck along treacherous mountain roads– shades of Wages of Fear!– Keating rolls over the edge of a cliff and dies. Cut to a 21-gun salute back at at the outpost.

By this point in the narrative we have had a glancing encounter with Afghans when Keating meets with them in an effort to win “hearts and minds,” a phrase that is uttered with only a trace of irony. “Hearts and minds” is essentially shorthand for counterinsurgency strategy: demonstrate good intentions and provide material benefits to “the locals” in order to prise them away from the enemy. The exchange between Keating and the village elders takes place largely in Pashto through an interpreter. In the end, Keating seems to win their support, convincing several men to surrender their weapons. The scene is only ever about the good faith and difficult circumstances of the Americans. The Afghans remain relatively obscure to the audience, at best a Central Asian iteration of another imperial type: the “Good Indian” from the mythic frontier West. (Though as we’ll discover “Good Indians” are often unstable figures who cause problems).

In a scene inside a bunker loose framing and practical set lighting further humanize the characters and create a sense of intimacy between them. But when Keating’s replacement is killed and the soldier next to him cracks from the shock, the story’s tone darkens. This development, in addition to the arrival of a third captain (Broward, who is neither well-liked nor respected) and various signs that Taliban fighters are increasingly well-equipped, sharpen the suspense. Given the title of the film, The Outpost, and a long history in Western literature and film of the tropes of Final Outposts and Last Stands (ex. Joseph Conrad’s “Outpost of Progress“, Cy Enfield’s Zulu, the Do Lung bridge scene in Apocalypse Now, the list is virtually endless) we all know where the story is headed.

Interlaying these developments, and as a means of generating pathos, the characters are further fleshed out. One soldier speaks of an abusive father, while Scusa, essentially the Friendly Nerd of this group, has an emotional conversation with his wife via satellite phone. In spite of Sgt. Romesh’s injunction about thinking of wives as an act that diminishes crucial attention to “the mission,” they have been present the entire time. Scusa’s discussion with his wife is one-sided– we only hear him speak, never her– but the stress in his voice manifests her presence and thus the dangerous loss of focus that is sure to ensue.

There follows a montage of different soldiers using the satellite phone to talk to their own loved ones. Elliptical editing fragments the dialog, leaving blanks we can easily fill. The almost effortless work this requires on our part encourages audience identification with the men not merely as combatants but as genuine, ordinary people. This narrative technique is particularly notable in contrast to a scene just minutes prior when a group of Afghans approach the outpost with the body of a dead girl, claiming she was killed by American artillery fire and demanding restitution. When one of the soldiers notes she has been dead for days, probably killed by the Taliban, their call for blutgeld registers as grasping and venal.

The opposition established at this juncture, between American authenticity and Afghan connivance, is clearly an othering gesture. The implication is that Americans’ intentions, unlike Afghans’, are sound even if their mission in Afghanistan is ultimately obscure, or even pointless. Ideologically the film wants it both ways: the emphasis on individuals reduces a vast project of imperial violence to a human scale while at the same time larger historical forces account for great deeds and follies.

A key component of The Outpost‘s dramatic power stems from its representation of US and Taliban combatants as near-equals in terms of resources. If this was, in fact, the case during the historical event Tapper’s book and its film adaptation are based on, it is also a venerable conceit in the “storying” of Empire’s wars.

In order to best the “tribal” enemy modern soldiers must in several senses become them. Special operators, long an object of Hollywood’s adoration, are possibly the model of this process. Like their avatars the Indian fighters of long ago (ex. figures from American fiction such as Natty Bumppo) the special operator must learn the terrain until it is as familiar to him as it is to a “native.” He must be adaptable to his environment, possess insight about his enemy, possibly even speak at least a smattering of their language. He may adopt part of their dress to blend in. In a sense he resembles the knights of the Crusader Kingdoms, born in the Levant, who are more nearly Oriental than Occidental.

Now the real fighting begins. There’s a lot of thrilling bang-bang until events reach a crisis point and the cry of “enemy in the wire” signals that the Taliban have breached the perimeter and are now roaming the outpost. In a confirmation of the Last Stand trope, Lt. Bundermann tells the soldiers to take “Alamo position,” an obvious reference to one of the most fabled acts of doomed and heroic resistance in US history. (The larger context of this event, such as the extension of chattel slavery into Texas and the cynical land grab that followed the Mexican-American War, rarely features in invocations of the Alamo.)

After more pulse-bumping combat– including selfless gestures and a roulette wheel of death– the (air) cavalry appears.

In a moment worthy of Saving Private Ryan, a masterwork in the war cinema canon, Sgt. Romesha takes aim at a wave of Taliban soldiers only to goggle in disbelief when they begin exploding. Apache (!) gunships have arrived, and in an understated gesture suggesting the Enlightenment-derived superiority of Americans over Afghans a woman’s voice crackles out of the radio: “X-ray, target destroyed.” The helicopter pilot is female. Empire is woke.

“Thank you for your service, ma’am,” Sgt. Romesha ironizes gratefully. “There’s more where that came from,” she replies.

The running joke of using this empty platitude–one civilians have been trained to offer veterans like a useless scrap of paper– is part of a repertoire of gallows humor many if not most war films liberally deploy. Imagine spitting out a piece of brain from the man blown apart beside you. Watching a comrade bleed out. Sending someone to resupply ammunition and seeing them killed 5 feet away. The closest thing we get to the derealizing horror of this kind of violence is in the response of the cherry who is evacuated for psychological trauma. Thank you for your service.

Oddly, perhaps, the filmmakers chose not to show a moment when Broward, the third captain, shoots the men’s adopted stray dog as a gesture to placate an Afghan man that has been bitten.

A B-1 bomber from Qatar arrives. At this point the clearly false equivalence between US Army and Taliban forces lapses entirely. B-1B bombers can travel in excess of 900 mph and deliver 75,000 pounds of munitions. It costs about $317,000,000 to make one.

A key function of Empire’s propaganda is to solicit recognition that its soldiers are pure-hearted and capable, and the destructive power of its weapons is matchless.

In the aftermath of the B-1 strike the remaining men on the ground mop up. Specialist Mace, close to death, is given transfusions of blood by his comrades. The wounded are collected. The score becomes perceptibly louder, somehow both melancholy and bombastic. As the light fails, fires still flicker and smoke continues to swirl, but the peak of the film has passed and it is time for something like a moral or at least a decent bit of dramatic closure to be asserted.

Lt. Bundermann, the junior officer left in command of the outpost after Broward left, reports to the commander of the reinforcements– another captain!– Captain Portis. Bundermann is understandably exhausted and close to tears. He apologizes to Portis, who reassures him, congratulates him on his leadership, and states that nothing of the outpost’s ruins will be salvaged. “Tomorrow,” the fourth captain intones grimly, “we’ll blow this shithole off the face of the earth.”

Lit by the dying fires, Romesha, Carter, and a few others sit together. Soft chords from an acoustic guitar strike up, accompanied by plaintive vocals. The camera tracks slowly into a medium close-up of a soldier playing and singing quietly.

But it just keeps going. Who will The Outpost outlast? More overhead shots of flaming wreckage. The sound of rotors. The last wounded are medevacked out. The next morning a steadicam hovers woozily over Carter as he wakes, disheveled, on the ground. Another crane shot of the camp. More rotors.

In the helicopter taking them out Carter learns that the man he tried to save– Mace, the cherry– “didn’t make it.” Closeups of the soldiers follow, with on-screen text of their names and the medals awarded them.

Two scenes close the film. In the first Romesha is shown calling home from a clean, well-lit comms room. When a woman answers the phone he is unable to speak. In the second, Carter sits with a military psychologist. Clearly in agony, at the edge of disintegration, he tries to answer her questions. The screen goes black.

In keeping with the “based on true events” convention of war films like The Outpost, a postscript is appended. It explains that after an investigation the Battle of Kamdesh was deemed the fault of leadership error and it was “recommended that all ‘obviously indefensible’ outposts be closed.” The final credits sequence takes this assertion of facticity to its limit: images of the actual soldiers involved in the battle are shown beside the actors who portray them. Strangely names, decorations, and ages are listed below the actors rather than the real people. Through it all, Rita Wilson sings “Everybody Cries,” a lachrymose song featuring the lyric “Who will be the last to die/ in a land where empires cry?”

With this nominally anti-war sentiment– one that couches a catastrophic political project still causing death and destruction 20 years later in the cadence of a nursery rhyme– The Outpost ends.