The Outpost


With their backs against the wall came their finest hour.

(2020) True War Drama (Screen Media Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, Milo Gibson, Bobby Lockwood, Celina Sinden, Jacob Scipio, Jack Kesy, Taylor John Smith, James Jagger, Alexander Arnold, Cory Hardrict, Will Attenborough, Scott Alda Coffey, Kwame Patterson, Fahim Fazli, Jonathan Yunger, Jack DeVos, Alfie Stewart. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

The War in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any armed conflict in U.S. History. In some ways, it has been a war of attrition with few pitched battles. One such was the Battle of Kamdesh on October 3, 2009 when 53 American soldiers in the remote Combat Outpost Keating in a valley surrounded by three mountains – not an idal defensible position, as any student of combat will tell you – were attacked by more than 400 Taliban fighters.

That war has come to the forefront of our consciousness lately – no easy task, given the circus of news that continually grabs our attention whether we  want it to or not – when the New York Times reported that intelligence sources revealed that the Russian GRU – their military intelligence arm – was bribing Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers.

The film is based on a non-fiction book co-authore by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. Director Rod Lurie – himself a veteran of the Army and a West Point graduate – understands the mind of the soldier, and clearly shows an affinity for them, getting the banter down pretty much pitch-perfect. We are basically flies on the wall at the camp for the first hour of the film, observing the regular attacks by Taliban sharpshooters, and getting a sense that the men are making the best of things, but are aware of the danger they are in; one analyst dubbed the camp “Camp Custer” because he thought it likely to be the site of a massacre down the line.

We meet some of the soldiers stationed there, from competent base commander Benjamin Keating (Bloom) to Ty Carter (Jones), who is not well-liked and doesn’t really take things all that seriously, or Clint Romesha (Eastwood), who has reservations about what they’re doing there and occasionally voices them to superior officers with varying amounts of acceptance, and Broward (Patterson), the rigid officer whose strict adherence to the book might just get them all killed.

The trouble is that we don’t really get to know most of the characters here, so when the attack comes during the second half of the film, it is hard to keep track of who’s who, who has survived and why we should care. It robs the movie of some of its effectiveness because of it.

But that’s not to say that this isn’t an effective movie – it is very much that. I honestly believe that this is the best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan despite having a budget that likely wouldn’t have even paid for the pyrotechnics on the Spielberg film.

Lurie and cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore utilize hand-held cameras to good effect here; they capture the chaos of the battle really nicely The movie, which was supposed to bow at SXSW earlier this year, instead gets a limited release in a handful of select theaters and a VOD release (see below for platforms). That’s heartbreaking in a way; this is a movie meant to be an immersive experience, with a fabulous sound system, a ridiculously big screen and a minimum of distractions. Reviewing it on less ideal circumstances takes away from the film’s impact. Hopefully, once the pandemic begins to ease off a bit, we will get to experience this film the way it was meant to be – in a theater with a huge screen, a sound system that will blow your cloths off, a dark room and a bucket of popcorn in your lap.

Beyond that though, we are at a critical juncture in American history. We are weary of the politics, the pandemic, the economy, all the ills that make our futures both individually and collectively less certain. We need heroes, and this film provides some real-life ones – this was the first battle in more than 50 years that produced more than one Medal of Honor winner. Incidentally, the movie doesn’t end with the battle; it features a coda in which one of the survivors faces his grief and his guilt. It’s as powerful a moment as you’re likely to see in the movies this year and has earned this movie a spot as one of the best films of the year so far.

REASONS TO SEE: The best depiction of combat since Saving Private Ryan. The ending is incredibly powerful. Look no further to see an account of what heroism looks like.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s not a lot of character development here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of war violence with some grisly images, a staggering amount of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the men who took part in the battle appear in variously important roles in the film, including Medal of Honor winner Ty Carter (played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones) and Daniel Rodriguez, who plays himself.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Prince (El principe)

Hacksaw Ridge


War is a dirty business.

War is a dirty business.

(2016) True War Drama (Summit) Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh, Jacob Warner, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Dennis Kreusler, Nathaniel Buzolic, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Luke Bracey, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole. Directed by Mel Gibson

 

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but at the same time there really isn’t a whole lot of room for religion in war either. When one is called upon to kill for king and country (or queen and country as the case may be) one must set aside some of the basic commandments of most religions, as well as the moral compass of society. We generally frown upon killing but wartime gives those who take human life a bit of a pass, although not without consequence. It can take a great deal of courage to set aside one’s morals for the sake of one’s country but it can take a great deal more not to.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is just an ordinary country boy from the hill country of Virginia back in 1944. He has a deep faith and participates at his Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His father Thomas (Weaving) came back from the Great War traumatized and sometimes violent with his family, particularly with his mother Bertha (Griffiths) whom he loves with a fierce devotion. He rough houses with his brother Hal (Buzolic) – sometimes a little too rough – and pines after the sweet nurse Dorothy Schutte (Palmer) whom he knew from the moment he saw her that he was going to marry her. Well, maybe one day soon.

But there’s a war going on and Desmond doesn’t feel right staying at home while others fight and die for his freedom. He knows he needs to go out there and defend his country, but there’s one problem – his religious beliefs prevent him from killing anyone. In fact, Desmond refuses to even touch a gun. He takes this quite seriously; in fact, he has become a vegetarian (a rarity in that era) because of his beliefs. He therefore decides to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Medic.

The trouble is that somewhere along the line the lines got crossed between Desmond and the military. He is sent for combat training, and combined with his slight frame and his refusal to even defend himself with violence puzzles Sgt. Howell (Vaughn) who is training him, as well as Captain Glover (Worthington), his commanding officer. It also infuriates his fellow soldiers who see it as cowardice and beat him up something fierce.

At last he is given a direct order to shoot a gun, a command he refuses. He is summarily put in the stockade, on his wedding day to make matters worse. He will go up for court martial, which carries with it prison time at Leavenworth. All the boy wants to do is serve his country, and eventually with the help from an unexpected source, he is allowed to do that and for his efforts is shipped off to Okinawa where he will finally get a chance to do exactly what he intended to; to save lives. In the process he will win the highest award our country bestows upon its citizens; the Medal of Honor.

Gibson is not a director who shirks at showing the uglier side of humanity. We see limbs blown off of soldiers, rats gnawing on fresh meat on the battlefield, innards sliding out of horrendous wounds, blood soaking everywhere, bodies blown to bits and the most brutal and savage hand-to-hand combat you’re likely to see. This isn’t for the faint of heart.

Yet at the center of the film is a heart filled with grace. Say what you want about Desmond Doss; he is a man of his word and watching what he did in real life (from most of the sources I’ve read Gibson has stuck pretty close to what Doss really did – even leaving out some feats because he felt that nobody would believe it really happened) is truly inspiring. Heroes wear uniforms, it’s true, but they don’t always beat up the bad guys.

Garfield, who took a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films, has been receiving some end-of-the-year awards attention. His portrayal of Doss is simple and to-the-point. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here and Gibson sometimes goes a little bit over-the-top as when he shows Doss being lowered off the cliff face of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa as almost an ascension to heaven. Garfield didn’t need that kind of cinematic excess to make the point for Gibson.

Although Vaughn is the only American in the cast (nearly everyone here is Australian with Garfield and a couple of others who are Brits) the film captures the tones and rhythms of American speech from the era nicely. Gibson also makes the pastoral setting of Lynchburg extremely appealing, as anyone who has visited the town can tell you (yes, we’ve made our pilgrimage to the Jack Daniels distillery – deal with it).

In fact, that setting and pace of life actually slows the film down a bit at the beginning. It really isn’t until the movie gets to Okinawa that things really start to shine here and Gibson shows why he is a very talented man behind the camera. The war scenes are quite simply the best I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. It certainly will stay in your memory for quite a while.

Mel Gibson has had a checkered career to say the least. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he showed every indication that he was going to be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Legal issues and some fairly unsavory comments on his part derailed both his acting and directing plans; in fact, this is his first stab at directing in a decade. That Summit has kept quiet his participation, not mentioning by name Gibson’s involvement is a testament to how much of a pariah he became in the industry. One wonders if there isn’t a bit of cinematic self-flagellation going on here. Armchair psychology aside, this is Gibson’s return to form and hopefully he’ll get some opportunities to continue to direct some films that showcase his talents. He certainly has plenty of it to showcase.

REASONS TO GO: A criminally little-known and inspiring story. It might be the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. This is a return to form for Gibson.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit slow in the first third. Some of the images here might be too much for the overly-sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Prolonged sequences of graphic war brutality including grisly images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doss was the second registered conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor – the first was Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. However, while York carried a weapon into war, Doss did not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flags of Our Fathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Best and Most Beautiful Things