MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday July 31st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a modern-day war film that has been getting a lot of buzz. But our reviewer Megan Basham is here now to explain why the credits may be the best thing about it.
CLIP: President Karzai doesn’t want American forces to leave before the Afghan election. General McChrystal agrees. You need to let the men know. So we’re not closing the outpost in July? That’s correct. I’m sorry. Maybe October. The good news is, you’ll all receive an extra thousand dollars a month. That’s all.
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM REVIEWER: It’s a little hard to understand what made Outpost one of the best-reviewed releases of 2020 so far. Certainly the Afghan War drama, which hit streaming services on July 3, has the kind of pedigree the critics are inclined to praise. It’s based on an exhaustively researched book by CNN newsman, Jake Tapper. And it tells the harrowing true story of how 53 U.S. soldiers faced down more than 400 Taliban fighters from the low ground in Nuristan.
Beyond that naturally gripping set up, it also offers complex themes. While it honors military valor, it indicts policies of unending conflicts with ill-defined, “hearts and minds” objectives. These, it suggests, are what put Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV in such a dire position.
CLIP: Rules of engagement are different here. You cannot shoot someone suspicious. Suspicious? So where were the bullets coming from, sir? You must PID a weapon or a radio in an enemy’s hand. That comes straight from McChrystal. You want your next tour to be in Leavenworth? Well, someone should tell McChrystal that we’re not out here selling popsicles, sir. Excessive force alienates the locals and causes greater risk. You better grasp that f’ing sentiment now.
But even when we grip our seats at the taut action sequences or smile at the band-of-brothers camaraderie, there’s something hollow and disconnected about the whole. It’s a strange experience to see such sacrifice on the part of our courageous, young countrymen yet feel so little moved by it.
Part of the problem is that the characters rotate out of the story every few minutes, killed or reassigned. But it’s also that, with a couple of notable exceptions played by Orlando Bloom and Scott Eastwood, those that remain often feel interchangeable. They have quick, clichéd markers of personality—the wisecracker, the mama’s boy. But little else distinguishes them.
Take one private who’s ostensibly a Christian. He speaks with the same unrelenting torrent of profanity and sexual innuendo every other character uses. Please, mark that the language alone would merit an R rating even if it didn’t come with realistic violence. When he tries to prove to a fellow soldier there’s some deeper meaning in the terror they’re experiencing, he’s often only able to offer platitudes.
CLIP: If God was real, then these guys wouldn’t be trying to kill us every goddamn day and Keaton would still be around here. God works in mysterious ways Sergeant. Yeah, so I guess God’s plan is our chaos then, huh.
This cultural faith, that has so little to offer in the face of death, might, in itself, offer some insight on the futility Solomon spoke of. But that doesn’t seem to be Director Rod Lurie’s purpose. Every time he draws up to the cusp of mining something more profound from these real events, something more than the familiar beats of dozens of war movies that have come before, he shifts to some other scene or interaction.
There does, eventually, come a moment when viewers will find their hearts stirred with empathy and gratitude. It’s as the credits roll. Then, Tapper sits down with the men who came back from Combat Outpost Keating to tell us about the fallen. As we see the faces of those who didn’t make it home to friends and family, we finally recall they were not mere types. Their experiences weren’t trite.
CLIP: I remember as I walked the outpost when the battle was over, and the buildings were literally falling to the ground and I would see black spots on the ground that were dark as motor oil. And then when the flames from the buildings would just kind of illuminate it enough for me to see that it was a very deep color of red. And that’s when I realized, oh, this is where one of our soldiers died.
Sergeant Christopher Griffin was real. So was Private First Class Kevin Thomson. As their brothers’ jaws tremble, trying to manfully restrain tears while remembering them, we remember these men we’ve never met too.
CLIP: I read somewhere in the Bible, the gates of Heaven and the gates of Hell are in the same spot,” says one of the heroes who survived. “So at the time of the firefight, it was the gates of Hell. But watching men sacrifice themselves to protect each other, you could see the true form of what brotherhood and love is. So it became the gates of Heaven as well.”
I’m Megan Basham.