May 2024

12 Strong (2018)

DIRECTOR: Nicolai Fuglsig

CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner


In some ways, 12 Strong is a bit of a throwback to war flicks of the ’50s and ’60s, rollicking adventures with more emphasis on creating a testosterone-fueled adrenaline rush than going into graphic details of the horrors of war (this slightly “old school” vibe is accentuated by the fact that our heroes spend much of the movie, including the climactic battle, on horseback).  To that end, it is strongly successful.  12 Strong doesn’t completely ignore or brush aside the grim realities of war, but it’s an action movie first and foremost and a substantially less downbeat experience than darker war films such as Platoon or Fury, and for fans of this kind of war flick, it represents an invigorating, solidly engaging couple of hours.

Following a brief prologue on September 11, 2001, as a detachment of Green Berets watches the 9/11 attacks unfold on television, the action soon shifts to Afghanistan, where the twelve Berets, led by their young and untested Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his older veteran right hand Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), are dropped into hostile territory.  For Nelson, who has performed well in training and combat simulations and has the support of his men but has not yet proven his mettle in battle, it will be a sink-or-swim baptism of fire.  And he faces a difficult mission to link up with Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and help Dostum and his warriors take down a series of strongholds of the Taliban, who provide support and sanctuary for 9/11’s mastermind Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan.  The mission is tactically challenging even backed up by the superiority of US air support, and the terrain is difficult, forcing Nelson and his men to travel by horse.

12 Strong is based on true events chronicled in Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers, but some details have been changed, including characters’ names (“Mitch Nelson”, for example, is based on Mark Nutsch, although Abdul Rashid Dostum’s real name is used).  The screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig has a little fat on its bones.  The opening family scenes showing Nelson, Spencer, and Sergeant Diller (Michael Pena) at home with their wives and children, and an extraneous and thinly-developed subplot involving one of the Berets (Trevante Rhodes) grudgingly bonding with a young Afghan boy, are meant to provide a little character-establishing and heart, but they lack effect because they feel just as perfunctory and obligatory as they are.  The movie isn’t long on character development.  Nelson, Spencer, and Diller are the only ones whose personal lives we get glimpses of (and of course are also played by the most recognizable actors), and the other Berets are mostly interchangeable; I’d have to browse the cast list to determine their names.  Of more interest is the movie’s chronicle of the challenges facing the Berets and their allies on the ground in Afghanistan, including the fact that the so-called “Northern Alliance” is on thin ice, consisting of rival warlords who barely stop fighting each other long enough to fight the Taliban.  For that matter, Nelson and Dostum are uneasy allies, with the battle-hardened warlord not feeling obliged to share pertinent information with his American guests and skeptical of Nelson’s combat readiness (in their first meeting, he deems him to not have “killer eyes”).  With Bin Laden left offscreen apart from some opening news clips, we’re mostly fighting hordes of faceless interchangeable Taliban henchmen; insofar as there’s a “villain”, it’s in the minor form of Taliban commander Razzan (Numan Acar), but he doesn’t get much screentime (although his disturbing introduction, in which he publicly executes a schoolteacher for educating girls, serves its purpose of giving us a tangible motivation to root against him and by extension the Taliban as a whole).  Probably the movie’s most unique element is that it features our heroes making an old school charge into battle on horseback against modern guns, rockets, and tanks, in what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “the first American cavalry charge of the 21st Century”.  Cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek captures sweeping wide-panning shots of the Afghan mountains, and director Nicolai Fuglsig (a former war photojournalist in an assured, technically accomplished directorial debut) handles the battle sequences adeptly, conveying the intensity of battle while choreographing expertly enough that the audience is always clear what’s going on.  The violence isn’t whitewashed—there’s plenty of spurting head shots—but the movie restrains the gore; there’s nothing nearly as gruesome on display here as in the likes of Fury or Hacksaw RidgeThe action is well-paced for the most part, and the climactic charge generates an adrenaline rush.

12 Strong isn’t heavy on character development, and nothing about Mitch Nelson stretches Chris Hemsworth out of his action hero comfort zone. Michael Shannon and Michael Pena provide adequate support, but they don’t get much to do (for a juicier Shannon role, look no further than the detestable character he plays in the other movie in which he can also currently be seen in theaters, The Shape of Water).  William Fichtner is the General overseeing the mission from afar, and Hemsworth’s onscreen wife is played in a small role by none other than his real-life wife Elsa Pataky.  The most intriguing character, in fact, is not any of the American “stars”, but the gruff, taciturn Afghan warlord Dostum, played by Iranian actor Navid Negahban with a commanding presence and a stern sense of honor.  The most interesting dynamic is the one between fresh-faced Nelson and battle-hardened veteran Dostum, as an uneasy alliance gradually gives way to trust and camaraderie and the untested young American slowly gains Dostum’s respect.

Some will accuse 12 Strong of overly glorifying war and lacking the “war is hell” emphasis of some darker war movies, but a movie should be judged for what it is, not for what it’s not trying to be.  The movie isn’t deep enough to go down as a war genre classic, but it’s well-made and succeeds at what it sets out to do, as a rollicking action-adventure and a tribute to real-life courage and determination.  For those who enjoy a more testosterone-fueled kind of war flick, 12 Strong is a solid two hours at the movie theater.

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