Editors Note: Journalist-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie just oversaw the release of The Outpost, an adaptation of a book by CNN host Jake Tapper on the courageous stand made by a small group of U.S. soldiers against hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Films are often graded by box office grosses, something that has become a meaningless metric in a pandemic that has shut movie theaters around the world. Lurie, who has directed such films as The Contender, The Last Castle and Straw Dogs, here describes what he has found as he has been forced to look past that measuring stick.
Michael Cieply wrote an article on Deadline on Sunday wondering how exactly movies are going to keep “score” these days. It used to be box office. But even when the major studio films are released later this year they will enter into theaters with limited capacities. How much can they possibly make? Michael is correct; all numbers in 2020 will come with an asterisk – as will all the stats from the NBA and MLB in their truncated seasons.
My war film, The Outpost, was supposed to premiere at South by Southwest. Then we were hoping to premiere at West Point. Then we were set for a 500-screen opening. On July 3rd, the pandemic era booked us in 71 theaters across the country. We were competing, if you want to use that word, with the 1985 classic Ghostbusters, which was playing in a few hundred theaters. (It should be noted that classic films are being doled out for free to the up-and-running hard-top and drive-in theaters.) At the same time we went to Video on Demand on all platforms.
So, how do we judge if our film had a successful opening weekend? Well, The Outpost was the No. 1 downloaded film on iTunes – the only platform that reveals such things. My understanding is the film is the top-performing film in the history of our distributor, Screen Media, in that regard. I am also very grateful for the reviews that we’ve received. We have an ever shifting but rather high score on Rotten Tomatoes. Another way to gauge, I suppose…
But… really, if I am being honest, my primary attention and anxieties for this past weekend were directed at how the military community would receive the film, in particular veterans of the Afghanistan War and, even more microscopically, the soldiers and families of the men who served at Combat Outpost Keating where the film is set. That would be the metric of success for this particular film.
I graduated from West Point in 1984 into the peacetime army. I never served in combat. I don’t really feel guilty about that. It wasn’t my fault we were not at war, after all. However, many of my classmates have indeed fought on the battlefield. So, if I could not be by their side there, at least I could try to honor them in the only way I knew how as a director. The Outpost focuses on the Battle of Kamdesh, in which 53 Americans were overwhelmed by a ratio of 8-to-1 by Taliban forces. Bravo Troop, 3-61 CAV became among the most decorated units of our longest war on that day: October 3, 2009. Two men received the Medal of Honor for their actions.
Jake Tapper wrote the book upon which this film is based, which Paul Tamasy & Eric
Johnson adapted into a screenplay. Last October, we showed the movie in rough-cut form to several of the surviving veterans and to family members of the eight men who died in this battle. Jake and I were both nervous wrecks. We had worked so hard on the film and been in constant communication with these people, and yet, well, who knew how they would react? We screened the film in Washington, D.C. at a function sponsored by the Brookings Institution. We brought in grief therapists in case the movie was too much for the audience. After all, the soldiers were about to relive the worst day of their lives and the families were going to see their loved ones die on screen.
Two soldiers left early on. I suppose that their PTSD was triggered. But the rest stayed for the entire duration. Silence at the end of a screening is not what a filmmaker normally wants to hear. But in this case it was appropriate and even welcome. The audience was left in a collective internal reckoning of their emotions.
We spoke afterward to the families at a small function. They seemed focused, all of them, on the simple fact that we were honest about the battle, that we told the truth about their loved ones’ deaths, and that they now knew that their sons’, husbands’ and fathers’ names would be spoken evermore. Jake and I both feel a tremendous kinship with these wonderful people (to be fair, a couple were shocked to learn that their soldiers cursed once in a while).
On the day the film opened, Stoney Portis, who was the commander of the unit, wrote in the New York Times about The Outpost, “know that you are not just watching a war movie. By allowing soldiers to tell their story, by hearing their story, you are also part of the healing.”
The release of the film prompted an avalanche of support from veterans of the war. Dr. Dan Barkhuff, a Navy SEAL and graduate of the Naval Academy, said it was “the best war movie since Black Hawk Down, maybe better.” (A bit much maybe, but we’ll take it.)
One 24-year veteran and Green Beret wrote, “the authenticity in the film is amazing… it had me reliving the sights and smells of the Nuristan province.”
A military spouse wrote, “If anyone in our country starts to lose respect for what our soldiers go through in a time of divisive politics; they need to see this movie. We owe all of them our deepest gratitude. I can’t thank you enough for putting this together.”
On Reddit, a veteran observed, “The best way to honor these men is to remember them, remember their families when you think of your loved ones, they had wives and children that will never see their husbands/fathers again.” I agree.
Through Twitter and Instagram and other social media we have received hundreds if not
thousands of letters like this.
Michael Cieply’s Deadline article opened my eyes to something. We in the business have always judged success by either money or awards. I get it, and obviously would love to have both. But the circumstances created by this pandemic have forced us to redefine what success, in its most sincere skin, actually is. With The Outpost I am wondering if I have found it.