A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2018


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 shame. 

12 STRONG 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. 



Their clandestine 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 upper hand. 

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.  


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