Synopsis – 12 Strong tells the story of the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11; under the leadership of a new captain, the team must work with an Afghan warlord to take down the Taliban.
My Take – I think the math is simple, as long as wars are going to continue, film about them are going to be made. After all, these stories are based on human conflicts, threat and stakes, with a classic good vs. evil story theme as the backbone of it all, well of course for action lovers, the battle sequences are harrowing and exciting to watch. But with every release, it’s getting hard to separate them from each other mainly due to their ubiquity, and as an audience myself I need to see something which would register in my for a long period of time and stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, this director Nicolai Fuglsig film fails to do that, but what it does, considering its source material, is offer us a pleasantly surprising story with a unique perspective on the Afghanistan conflict following the September 11 attacks. Sure, the film has its problems with a lack of characterization in the script and a repetitive concept, yet it manages to be enthralling and enjoyable all thanks to its collection of talented actors and some legitimately gripping action sequences. Based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, the film takes place a month after the NYC attacks of 9/11/2001, as the story follows Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) who along with Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and a team (Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Jack Kesy, Austin Stowell, Austin Hebert, Kenny Sheard, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Ben O’Toole, and Kenneth Miller) are send to Afghanistan on a covert mission as the first troops to retaliate. With a harsh winter approaching in a matter of weeks, the mission drawn out by Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner) is straight-forward: Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), a Taliban leader has occupied the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and the Special Forces have to drive him out.
The only way to accomplish this assignment, though, is with the assistance of the Afghani people — specifically the Northern Alliance military front led by the notoriously stern and strict General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban). Riding on horseback through the desert, Nelson’s unit and Dostum’s followers cooperate and use their combined resources and terrain knowledge to take the fight to their shared enemy and score the first victory in what would develop as the War in Afghanistan. From this point, the film devolves into a meditation on various ways to drop a jihadi. Rifle fire works well whenever the wily buggers step out from concealment behind the country’s abundant supply of rock piles; but calling in air support to deliver death-from-above is more efficient, and, frankly, more gratifying. Over the course of two hours and 10 minutes, we see a lot of bad-guy turbans retired, bullets taking them out in the modern cinematic manner, with attendant gushes of blood. While there ultimately isn’t anything in it that elevates it to the level of great from a stylistic or narrative perspective, the film is successfully compelling and reveals details of a heroic and teamwork-driven endeavor that most people probably don’t know about. This is one of those incredible true stories that reveals an entirely new side to a conflict and informs the viewer. There are subtle hints at the hardship faced by those who live in the wake of the Taliban, and a decent conversation about the foreign policy dynamics that play a huge part in two countries colliding. The general thought process is that if these 12 soldiers didn’t take the fight immediately back to the heart of the terrorist unit, more 9/11’s would have happened, and quick. That is why there is a statue at The World Trade Center Memorial of a soldier on horseback. The titular soldiers faced unique conditions in their quest for immediate retaliation after September 11th, certainly the most notable being their mode of transportation, but what’s easiest to appreciate is the film’s focus on cooperation. Many war films about America’s modern Middle Eastern conflicts fall into the trap of painting a nation vs. nation/ideology vs. ideology backdrop, but the film clearly demonstrates the incredible importance that Afghanistan soldiers had in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Then there’s the main reason the story of the Horse Soldiers is so extraordinary: the fact that these twelve soldiers and a few hundred Afghan tribal warriors had to face fifty thousand Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, facing off tanks and artillery on horseback. Where the film succeeds mainly is in its portrayal of the companionship among the men in task force unit Operational Detachment Alpha 595. The dialogue in barracks and battle scenes never seems forced and an actual camaraderie exists among them from the playful jostling to the in-jokes, such as the ribbing one soldier receives for being loyally guarded by a prepubescent Afghan boy. It is a joy to watch them interact every time they are on screen, making it all the more wrenching when any of them are injured on the battlefield. The film would have benefited from focusing more upon the relationships among the men; perhaps then it would not have been overwhelmed by the war scenes. One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle. The battle scenes, of course, come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. It’s well staged, well choreographed and well-shot, with some excellent sound mix and sound editing work.
Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable. Despite the film’s high level of craft (especially in its soundtrack, which expertly mixes the clatter of battle with a deep moan of massed brass) and its general likability, it’s inevitably unsatisfying. Although its subject would seem to have built-in excitement—a righteous-minded assault on the 9/11 malefactors sheltering in Afghanistan—it’s deflatingly open-ended as the script literally lacks in depth that it is difficult to care for these brave soldiers when we really should feel for them. It would be generous to imply that even three of the 12 men have more than a generic back-story. Only three of the men under Nelson’s command leave an impression: Spencer, an experienced warrant officer who is relentlessly loyal to his untested, much younger captain; the fidgety but selfless Diller; and the lollipop-sucking Milo, who ends up taking a shine to a bothersome local kid, as American servicemen in films about war in the Middle East are wont to do. Not that these characters are all that well-developed (though there is a small, effective vignette early in the film with Spencer and his family), but at least the viewer might end up remembering their names. That’s more than can be said for the rest of the group, who are a blur of gear, injuries, orders, and wisecracks. Even after dedicating a significant portion of the film to building up the soldiers’ lackluster relationships with their families, the ending rails against any emotional impact their familial relationships may have had. Their reunion after the war, which should have served as the emotional climax, became a briefly glossed-over scene. For instance, the last three minutes of the film show Nelson returning home to his wife and child in a hasty scene devoid of dialogue or cinematic techniques to heighten the emotional impact. Perhaps the weakest part of the film is its glorification of war as it attempts to convince the audience it presents a tale of humanity. However what makes the film highly watchable is its cast led by Chris Hemsworth‘s affable presence, backed by the always reliable Shannon with Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes as two of the soldiers, providing wry commentary from the sidelines, and of course the brilliant Navid Negahban. Naturally, Chris Hemsworth and Navid Negahban are the film’s true leads, and thankfully they deliver the best turns of the group. In the case of Hemsworth, his recent track record has amplified his comedic talents, but he successfully reminds us here that he can sell serious drama just as well. Hemsworth has the ability to combine legit film star power with acting chops, infusing Nelson with a stoic bravado, but also tapping into the vulnerability learning to walk way before he could crawl. Negahban maybe new to a general audiences, but I remember seeing him in Showtime‘s Homeland, and he is equally excellent here as a proud man slowly coming to terms with the fact that pride may be his downfall. In supporting roles, Michael Pena and his snappy punch lines, Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), William Fichtner , Rob Riggle, Austin Stowell, Elsa Pataky (Hemsworth‘s real life as well as his screen wife), Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy are good too. The film’s main antagonist, Numan Acar, also from Homeland’s rogue gallery, is equally menacing. On the whole, ’12 Strong’ is a decent war film which despite its faults remains an entertaining experience due to its appealing cast and battle sequences.
Directed – Nicolai Fuglsig
Rated – R
Run Time – 130 minutes