Connect with us


Review: On Matters of War, Outside the Wire Talks Out of Both Sides of Its Mouth

The film’s arguments against endless war end up seeming more than a bit disingenuous.

Derek Smith



Outside the Wire
Photo: Netflix

Set along the Ukrainian border in 2036, Mikael Håfström’s Outside the Wire finds the United States in an all-too-familiar position: purportedly playing peacekeeper in a war zone while wielding its unequaled military might. In the film, the U.S. is taking a two-pronged in its attempt to prevent a genocide in Eastern Europe, using remotely located drone pilots, like Lieutenant Harp (Damson Idris), and an array of on-the-ground troops—some human, others robots called Gumps, and one an A.I.-enhanced supersoldier named Leo (Anthony Mackie)—to help stave off the increasing likelihood of nuclear holocaust. The story is a mélange of familiar sci-fi and war movie tropes that, because of how haphazardly they’ve been thrown together, never enliven the film’s attempted critiques of modern warfare.

After disobeying orders and making a call to sacrifice two men in order to save 38 others, Harp finds himself thrust into real combat for the first time, under the direct command of the domineering Leo. While Håfström uses this pairing as a means to probe the disconnect between drone pilots and the death and destruction they cause from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, Outside the Wire’s arguments against endless war end up seeming more than a bit disingenuous, especially given how much time it spends glorifying the actions and morality of those who help buoy ongoing American occupation of foreign nations.

As Leo gives Harp a crash course on live combat tactics, the film offers some intriguing parallels between its human and A.I. protagonists, at times suggesting that Harp is even more cold and inhuman in his decision-making than his robotic counterpart. But the filmmakers never connect Harp’s lack of perspective to the disastrous tactics of the American military that help to perpetuate endless wars, nor do they see empathy as a preferable alternative to his impassiveness. The drone pilot, instead, is integrated into ground combat, where he will learn to go to great lengths to ensure the survival of all the soldiers fighting on his side, even if it means transforming into a typically aggro American tough guy in the process.

Outside the Wire’s seeming rah-rah support of America as the world’s police is eventually complicated in the film’s second half when Leo’s reasons for taking Harp on a mission outside the warzone—or “wire” per the title—are revealed to be more than just preventing the maniacal warlord Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk) from getting his hands on nuclear weapons. Leo’s more far-reaching plans compellingly challenge Harp’s earlier decision to kill a couple of soldiers in order to save many more. But the film ultimately stops short in its argument against America’s ubiquitous global military presence, even as it ostensibly takes the moral high ground in exposing some of the dangers that come along with said presence.

Outside the Wire not only plays up the fears of a second Cold War with its portrait of the villainous Victor, who’s part of the nefarious Krasny (or “Red”) terrorist group, but also presents the only attempt to stop the U.S. military as such an extreme action that any reasonable person would reject it out of hand. As a result, we’re left with a film that criticizes war as “bullshit” but ultimately places all of the blame on the enemy and non-human American soldiers, leaving politicians and high-ranking military officers unscathed. In essentially speaking out of both sides of its mouth, Outside the Wire ends with a particularly uninspiring message not against perpetual wars, but rather with the feeble promise that, in the words of Harp, those responsible for creating and extending wars can “learn to do better.”

Cast: Anthony Mackie, Pilou Asbæk, Emily Beecham, Michael Kelly, Damson Idris, Kristina Tonteri-Young, Bobby Lockwood, Enzo Cilenti, Henry Garrett Director: Mikael Håfström Screenwriter: Rowan Athale, Rob Yescombe Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2021

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.