12 STRONG ½
2018, R, 130 mins.
Chris Hemsworth as Captain Mitch Nelson / Michael Shannon as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer / Michael Peña as Sgt First Class Sam Diller / Elsa Pataky as Mitch's Wife / Trevante Rhodes as Sgt First Class Ben Milo / Ben O'Toole as Scott Black / Navid Negahban as General Dostum / Fahim Fazli as Commander Khaled / Austin Hébert as Sgt First Class Pat Essex
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig / Written by Ted Tally, based on the book by Doug Stanton
To quote its full title, 12 STRONG: THE DECLASSIFIED TRUE STORY OF THE HORSE SOLDIERS is the latest 9/11 themed war drama that contains an utterly fascinating fact based storyline that never comes compellingly alive the way it wants to.
Based on Don
Stanton's non-fiction book THE HORSE SOLDIERS (a better title than the
film's), 12 STRONG deals with a previously unknown military triumph that
the U.S. had in Afghanistan in direct response to 9/11 and, in a way, it
also serves as a tribute to the gallant soldiers that fought during it and
remained largely unknown and unrecognized.
On those levels, the film has the noblest of intentions as it
delves into a mostly hidden tale of how America initially waged war on the
Taliban, but it lacks so much depth and nuance in its particulars that it
comes off as a piece of antiquated genre filmmaking, which is a small
establishes a somber mood in its opening stages, which are handled
relatively well. After the
terrorists attacked both the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we witness
the formation of the ODA 595, a super elite Special Forces Unit that ended
up being the very first task force that was secretly sent into Afghanistan
to wage a retaliatory strike against Al Qaeda.
Leading this pack of, yes, 12 soldiers is Mitch Nelson (Chris
Hemsworth, struggling with a credible American accent, but nevertheless
looking like a Adonis-chiseled G.I. Joe), who in turn works with his
second in command in Cal Spencer (an underutilized Michael Shannon) to
gather together just the right group of soldiers for the intimidating
mission to come. Of course,
considering the magnitude of 9/11, rallying support from troops is the
least of Mitch's problems.
mission - code named "Dagger" - is to journey to Afghanistan and
meet up with a Northern Alliance warlord, General Dostum (the very fine
and quietly strong Navid Negahban, one of the better casting coups of the
film), who has absolutely zero loyalties or ties to the Taliban and who in
turn will assist Mitch and Task Force Dagger to battle their way in, inch
by inch, to the stronghold of one of the Taliban's most mercilessly cruel
leaders. The general's main job is to get Mitch and his men in close
enough to call in accurate air strikes on Taliban weapons caches,
strongholds, and so forth, but Mitch and the general reach predictable
ideological stalemates along the way as to the proper course of action.
Realizing that the enemy's unwillingness to surrender, their
unending assaults, and the dangers of the Afghan terrain, Mitch and his
squad are forced to utilize some rather unorthodox war tactics to gain the
While watching 12
STRONG you gain an immediate sense of (a) just how dangerous Task Force
Dagger's mission was (there was only 12 of them, after all) and (b)
just how nuttier than a proverbial fruitcake their overall plan of attack
was. Because Afghanistan's
overall mountainous terrain proved to be decidedly tough to travel across
via conventional military transport methods, Mitch and his squad resorted
to essentially using horses for travel and, oftentimes, while engaging in
full frontal assaults on the enemy. Their
main strategy was to allow for B52's to swoop in and drop bombs on their
targets first from 30,000 feet, followed by the ground task force to sweep
up what's left. Still,
there's something frighteningly and oddly anachronistic about witnessing
all American men armed to the teeth with high tech modern weaponry...that
gallop in on horseback to face the enemy on the battlefield like they just
time warped from 200 years ago. To
his credit, first time feature film director Nicolai Fuglsig manages to
generate a few sequences of palpable suspense out the sight of seeing such
a bizarre manner of waging war. 12
STRONG has a gritty verisimilitude to the combat at times, and the
relentlessly bombastic sound design makes you really feel every bullet hit
and missle strike.
There are other
times, though, when the action itself suffers from some muddled
choreography, during which time Fugsig seems to struggle at delineating
the geographical particulars of his combatants on both sides.
Some individual scenes are confusingly staged and don't seem to
have a firm grasp on overall spatial relationships, not to mention it
appears, far too often than not, that Mitch and his task force seem to
have unlimited rounds of ammo and are nearly perfect crack shots when the
screenplay deems it necessary and convenient.
Another creative problem tied to this is the fact that we really
never get to know any of these characters very well at all.
Yes, we get the familiar military movie troupes of the brave and
honor-bound soldiers leaving their beleaguered and worried wives and
families back home to fight the greater fight abroad, but beyond that
Mitch, Cal, and their crew are more broadly realized character types than
genuinely intriguing characters.
Maybe that's the
biggest issue I had with 12 STRONG: The screenplay was written by a very
accomplished screenwriter (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS' Ted Tally), yet even
he can't really elevate the material beyond basically glorifying war and
combat. There's an overall
aura of disappointing thematic simplicity on display here, focusing more
on cheerleading Task Force Dagger as heroes battling against
insurmountable odds without much, if any, commentary on the whole hellish
nature of combat and how it tears apart the souls of those a part of it.
The heroes and villains shown here are pretty black and white: The
Americans are clearly the good guys and the Taliban leader they
target (dressed all in black for easy identification as a bad guy)
is clearly evil. Obviously,
12 STRONG is transparently advertised as a thrilling and action heavy
reality based war film first and a sobering and thoughtful expose on
American military campaigns in Afghanistan a very, very distant
second. That much is clear. Yet,
12 STRONG seems to take a bit too much patriotic joy in unleashing a lot
of bombastic bloodshed and mayhem to the point where the real cruelties
and complexities of war are lost on this film.
Much like the reality based Michael Bay directed military thriller 13 HOURS, I was constantly asking myself while watching 12 STRONG how much better this material would have been served under, say, a seasoned pro like Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg that know how to make thoughtful war films? They would have had a field day tapping into an unmistakably rousing story of military heroism from a very bleak point in American history, and they would have done so with more tactful introspection than the end result here. Yeah, yeah...12 STRONG's main motive here is feel-good inspiration, to be sure, about some truly brave men that crazily went into battle utilizing centuries old methods. Again, the story of these "Horse Soldiers" is worth telling and should be told. The intentions on display here are as admirable as the courage of the soldiers the film portrays, but a far more sophisticated telling of their story is warranted, and one that both celebrates their unquestionable gallantry while also saying something regarding the brutality of war and what American's long-term involvement in Afghanistan.
Having said that, when you have Thor himself leading the military charge in all of his blonde haired, broad shouldered, and rock hard physiqued glory, it's hard at times not to be swept up by this film's super heroic jingoistic spirit.