What will it take to get you back to a movie theater? You know – those darkened rooms where people go to answer their cellphones, chat with friends, argue with strangers and eat their own body weight in unhealthy snacks. Damn, I miss those places.
My local art house cinema just reopened and I almost booked tickets the other day, before chickening out. It turns out I’m going to require a Chernobyl-esque exclusion zone around my seat before I feel comfortable about returning. Also, the film I wanted to see was “The Farewell,” which, given the circumstances, just seemed to be tempting fate.
Despite these misgivings, I just saw two movies on television that I would absolutely die to see on the big screen. Okay, maybe “die” is a little strong here; maybe “get a mild case of the sniffles” would be more apt. Those films are “The Outpost” and “Hamilton.”
While both work brilliantly on the small screen, they were made to be seen (and heard) in movie theaters, and deserve the chance to be experienced in their natural habitat. I just saw them in a triple bill with the Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” and all three blew me away for completely different reasons.
Based on the 2012 book by Jake Tapper – yes, that one, although I like to think there are several Jake Tappers in America and at least one of them is a Fox News-loving GOPer inadvertently receiving hate mail from Trump fans – “The Outpost” is the best, most believable war movie I’ve seen in years.
While I would love to see this low budget but hugely effective movie in a cinema, the number of f-bombs I dropped while watching it – specifically, whenever a bullet suddenly whistled past a soldier’s ear or a bomb unexpectedly detonated – means it’s probably just as well that my first viewing was at home.
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The outpost in question is situated in a valley in Nuristan, northern Afghanistan – a remote, mountainous land previously immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in “The Man Who Would Be King.” When it was first proposed in 2006 that a U.S. Army base be established in a valley there, a soldier promptly nicknamed it Custer Combat Outpost.
As Tapper put it, “It didn’t take a Powell or a Schwarzkopf to know that as a matter of basic military strategy, it was better to be at the top of a hill than at the bottom of a valley.” Also, as Lin-Manuel Miranda might put it, in any attack they would likely be outgunned, outmanned and outnumbered.
Fast-forward to 2009, and after three years of daily attacks by the Taliban from overlooking mountain ridges, Camp Kamdesh is a place where the soldiers’ sole goal is survival and the life expectancy of commanding officers is rivaled only by Spinal Tap drummers.
Little wonder that the 54 troops guarding the place have developed a layer of cynicism almost as thick as their armor. Neither will ultimately prove good enough to save some of them.
Director Rod Lurie – his father, Ranan Lurie, was the political cartoonist for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth from 1956 to 1967 – tries to give us a fighting chance of getting to know these soldiers by putting their names on screen when we first meet them. Making the actors wear 3-foot-long day-glo dog tags might have been more useful, though, because it’s oftentimes impossible to work out who’s who, especially during the nighttime scenes.
That actually works to the film’s favor, though, reflecting the chaos whenever the base or its combatants come under attack – which is often enough to constantly keep you, the viewer, on guard.
Inevitably, some of the actors make more of an impression than others in this large ensemble: Most memorably, there’s tough-as-nails Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, played by Scott Eastwood – “Clint” isn’t a reference to the actor’s dad, but the real-life character he’s playing (everyone you see on screen is based on an actual a soldier from the base) – and rookie Staff Sgt. Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), who has never killed a man in combat before.
Given the fact that the biggest name here is Orlando Bloom (playing commander 1st Lt. Ben Keating), the film doesn’t give you the luxury of knowing which character is likely to survive due to star billing. Every one of these soldiers is potentially seconds away from a body bag, which gives the film a rare, crackling tension.
Its early stages reminded me of “Apocalypse Now,” with the soldiers enjoying “bantz” amid the bullets. It then briefly veers into “Sorcerer” territory as the troops are ordered to drive an unwieldy vehicle over treacherous terrain (if you have never seen William Friedkin’s underrated 1977 remake of “The Wages of Fear,” you really should check it out), before finally becoming “Assault on Precinct 13” as hundreds of Taliban forces attack the base in the early hours of October 3, 2009, in what became known as the Battle of Kamdesh.
“The Outpost” has been likened to Ridley Scott’s 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” in which U.S. troops were forced to fight a bloody rearguard action after a mission in Mogadishu went badly wrong. Yet while I found Scott’s film to be jingoistic nonsense, Lurie’s film feels authentic because it shuns the badge-kissing, “Thank-you-for-your-service” approach and gives us instead a band of brothers (and yes, this is a very male, testosterone-driven movie) doing whatever it takes to survive. It’s an Afghan Alamo, where everyone is too busy dodging bullets and RPGs to issue vainglorious speeches.
With over 8,000 American troops still stationed in Afghanistan, the film ultimately works as a powerful metaphor for the futility of U.S. efforts there – where getting out alive has become the only hallmark of victory.
I belong to a small group of folks who weren’t completely blown away when we saw “Hamilton” on stage. I blame that partly on seeing the West End rather than Broadway production – expecting British actors to rap convincingly is like expecting your rabbi to have a good pork recipe – and partly on the fact that I had to donate a vital organ to secure tickets. (Note to self: Remember to explain to the youngest one day why she only has one kidney.)
But here’s the weird thing about this new film that captures a stage performance by the original Broadway cast: Not being in the room where it happened makes it far easier to appreciate the sheer brilliance of Miranda’s musical.
For starters, you can decipher and marvel at the lyrics (most of which passed me by in the theater). Then there’s the way the production is filmed: The cameras are unobtrusive but still give you the best seat in the house – there are no extreme closeups and you’re always aware that you’re watching a staged production, but it’s immersive enough to sweep you up in the action.
The music sounds fantastic and the singing is sublime – though is it heresy to suggest that Miranda has the weakest voice of the main performers? – and you’re left marveling at the genius of a musical that managed to get millions clambering for tickets despite having song titles like “The Adams Administration” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet.”
I’m sure that at some point we’ll get a “Hamilton – the Movie” that transfers the action from the stage to a movie set, but I’m not convinced there’s any need after this version.
Indeed, while watching this totally engrossing “live” performance, I kept thinking about last year’s film version of “Cats” and the millions of dollars spent removing kitties’ buttholes and the painstaking efforts to make everything feel realistic – because what screams realism more than a singing cat?
If only “Cats” had gone down this “Hamilton” route, it might not have been such a dog’s dinner.
Everyone knows two things about Netflix: a friend’s password and the fact that its documentaries are invariably bloated affairs, never saying in four episodes what can be said in six. Or Eight. Or 10.
“Athlete A,” then, is that rarest of things: a Netflix documentary whose only failing is squeezing into a 104-minute film a subject matter that demands a full series.
That quibble aside, this is still a phenomenal documentary by directors Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen that will likely leave you angry and upset yet also strangely uplifted by a completely different, but no less impressive, form of bravery than that witnessed in “The Outpost.”
The anger and upset come from the way the USA Gymnastics team shamelessly covered up sexual abuse, most notably by doctor Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls during his nearly three-decade stint with the organization and Michigan State University before finally being unmasked in 2016.
That story has already been told in the 2019 documentary “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal.” Perhaps that’s why this new film is broader in scope, looking at abuse in its many forms within elite gymnastics, so in addition to the shockingly widespread cases of sexual abuse, there is an examination of the physical and mental abuse of the young women – though in most cases these are actually vulnerable young girls – competing to be the world’s best.
This is a story with many villains, including the heartlessly demanding Romanian coaches who transformed gymnastics in the United States after defecting from Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and the marketing maven who turned USA Gymnastics into a money-printing machine in the ’90s.
Yet it’s also a story with many heroes. I’ve always hated the phrase “Not all heroes wear capes,” but it turns out in this case it’s true: They actually wear shiny leotards. Interviews with the gymnasts and former gymnasts who came forward to speak directly about Nassar’s abuse is profoundly moving.
A youngster like Maggie Nichols (the “Athlete A” of the title) speaks with remarkable maturity about her experiences, while if you’re not shaken by the calmly delivered recollections of Rachael Denhollander – the original whistleblower in the Nassar case – then I suggest you seek medical advice as you may have slipped into a coma.
The other heroes of the film are the group of reporters from the Indianapolis Star who broke the story just prior to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and have worked tirelessly on exposing USA Gymnastics ever since. At a time when regional journalism in America has never been under greater threat, “Athlete A” is a vital reminder of why it matters.
As you see video footage of the initial police questioning of Nassar, and hear how he inveigled his way into many gymnasts’ affections by being “good cop” to their trainers’ “bad cops,” it’s yet another reminder that monsters come in many shapes and guises.
He may look like the type of schlub you’d expect Tony Hale to play in a movie, but Nassar shattered hundreds of lives. That’s why it’s impossible not to cheer near the end as former Olympian Jamie Dantzscher delivers her powerful victim impact statement in a packed courtroom: “We have a voice,” she tells Nassar, looking him in the eye. “We have the power now.” More power to films like “Athlete A” for amplifying that voice.
“The Outpost” is available on VOD from Amazon Prime, Apple TV and others; “Hamilton” is available on Disney+ in America; and “Athlete A” is on Netflix.