Nowhere do those competing impulses cohabitate more uneasily than in the war film, in which collective remembrance and mourning bump up against the vicarious thrill of combat. The newest example is “The Outpost,” about a group of soldiers who endured a brutal 12-hour battle with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2009. The film, adapted from the book by Jake Tapper, pays tribute to the eight men who died that day, as well as to the brothers in arms who tried to save them despite being at a severe strategic disadvantage. Stationed at the bottom of a steep valley, under-resourced by their own leaders and outmanned by their opponents, the servicemen who survived the Battle of Kamdesh became one of the most decorated units in the war.
Directed by Rod Lurie, “The Outpost” clearly sets out to celebrate service and sacrifice (Lurie, a former film critic, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy). And, like most war films, it revels in the life-or-death action that serves as a crucible for bravery and patriotism. In long, unbroken shots, Lurie plunges the audience into the theater of war, in all its terrifying, bloody chaos.
Those bravura takes are an impressive reminder that the urge to commemorate has always tracked with the available technology: Painting and sculpture aspired to mesh realism with heightened drama, the better to create narratives of moral uplift and nationalist aggrandizement. Photography, when it came along, exerted a refreshingly destabilizing force: The Civil War soldiers photographed by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner weren’t captured as daring men of action, but as inert, chasteningly lifeless corpses. Meanwhile, abolitionist Frederick Douglass made it a point to become the era’s most-photographed man, in direct opposition to a culture drenched in racist images of minstrels and contented slaves.
Once cinema was invented, the camera instinctively drew the spectator’s eye to the battle itself, which for generations was depicted in the visual language of sensational violence, critically urgent stakes and highly pitched emotion. It’s just that tension — between rousing entertainment and deeper meaning — that Lurie set out to navigate in “The Outpost.”
He recalls an early conversation with Millennium Media, the company that produced the movie, and that has also produced “The Expendables” and “Rambo Last Blood.” He advised them not to expect an action film. “They were going to get a war film [from me],” he says. “And those are two very different genres, although both include explosions. The action film is meant fully to entertain and the war film, by its very nature, must be making a statement about war. Otherwise, it has no reason for existence.”
For Lurie, that meant not only honoring the bravery of the men on the ground, but pointing out how poorly served they were by military leadership that put their base in such an exposed location, with inadequate means to defend it.
“Yes, these soldiers were beyond brave,” he says. “And, more importantly, they were not Navy SEALs or Army Rangers or Special Forces. . . . Most of these guys weren’t career soldiers, they just wanted to go home. The nuance our film brings is that it was a calamitous decision of the brass to put those guys there.”
As strenuously as “The Outpost” seeks to avoid Great Man idolatry that attends the statues now being reappraised, removed or dismantled, “Hamilton” engages in a different form of admiration. (Both films are available for streaming starting on July 3.) In the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster stage musical — filmed over two performances on Broadway in 2016 — Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and their Revolutionary-era cohorts are the subjects both of pageantry and myth-puncturing irreverence.
Loosely based on Ron Chernow’s exhaustive biography, “Hamilton” takes its share of liberties with actual events and characters. (In tacit acknowledgment of cinema-as-monument, the play is also staged with blurry rewinds and slow-motion effects that are right at home on-screen.) But in so purposefully dispensing with notions of accuracy, the show gives American history and its imperfect heroes a wide, expressive canvas, on which they can come alive with new urgency, vitality and honesty, if not literal truth.
In dramatically different but equally effective ways, “The Outpost” and “Hamilton” exemplify an abiding maxim: Whether it was being mythologized by Homer, romanticized by Gerard Manley Hopkins or commodified by Harry Warner, recorded history has always been shaped by the values, vanity and political agendas of the recorders — an idea deftly expressed by Miranda in the line “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
The result is that “The Outpost” occupies the space of so many 21st-century war films, which, unlike the can-do spirit of World War II dramas or the bleak antiwar statements of the post-Vietnam era, have tried to thread a particularly tricky needle, honoring the professionalism and competence of ground-level operators in Iraq and Afghanistan, without lapsing into jingoism, naive hero-worship or outright propaganda. (Lurie says he made a point to warn the families of his subjects that he wouldn’t always portray them in an idealized light. “I felt it was important to be honest about these guys without being defamatory,” he explains. “It’s not valuable to us historically to simply canonize people.”) Like building a plane while it’s flying, these films have struggled to find meaning and consensus in wars, not after years of reflection but while they’re still underway.
“The Outpost” engages in its share of spectacular action sequences, and the filmmakers’ obvious admiration for their characters teeters awkwardly close to unrequited bromance. But the pageantry is also tempered by a more pensive consideration of why the men were forced to overcome such insurmountable odds in the first place.
Such ambiguity, of course, doesn’t fit neatly on a metal plaque or marble plinth. As Lurie notes, “If they built a statue to honor the men who fell in the Battle of Kamdesh, what the statue wouldn’t say was, ‘We screwed up so badly by putting the post there.’ ” If we can’t get the nuances of history from a statue, he believes, “you can get it from a movie. . . . Truth is the best monument.”
And truth, of course, is messy. In the case of the war that “The Outpost” seeks to both memorialize and critique, anything other than ambivalence — or at least admiration tempered by skepticism — would be unequal to a conflict that remains vexingly unresolved.