12 Strong, 2018.
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Stowell, Ben O’Toole, Austin Hebert, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Elsa Pataki, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Laith Nakli, Fahim Fazli, and Numan Acar.
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.
As US paramilitary soldiers and the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan get to know one another, General Dostum (Homeland‘s Navid Negahban) refuses to show Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame) the same level of respect as the rest of his titular brotherly squad of 12 soldiers. He goes on to cite Officer Hal Spencer’s (the always scorchingly intense Michael Shannon) eyes as the telling sign of a true warrior, versus someone less experienced such as Mitch who apparently relies too heavily on strategical plans instead of using the passion of the moment to fuel the fire for victory. 12 Strong easily could have been another mid-January true story war drama (they typically rake in cash during this time of year) coasting off of jingoism and an unnecessary thirst for violence, but it instead humanizes the inner conflict in Afghanistan by actually providing characterization to their partnered warlord leader
That’s not to say that the brave Americans aren’t fun to be around; they absolutely are thanks to a top-notch cast involving the aforementioned names alongside other star power notables such as Michael Pena (naturally providing some of the comedic relief), Trevante Rhodes (the breakout Moonlight actor allowed to put his radiance on display once again, often seen chewing on a toothpick while looking over and increasingly growing protective of a young firearm wielding Afghan child soldier), and so many more (even funnyman Rob Riggle shows up occasionally to bark some orders displaying some range). Most importantly, their bonding and camaraderie feels earned and authentic, never feeling the need to overplay brutish military stereotypes. They are real human beings with families (thankfully, each major soldier gets one scene each with their family in the beginning without annoying reminders that they exist to come home to, which is usually a lazy attempt at heightening drama).
Still, there’s a reason the narrative (based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton and adapted for the screen by Ted Tally and Peter Craig) seems to make a conscious decision to largely focus on the dynamic between American and Afghan putting aside their differences and learning from one another in order to take down their common enemy that is the Taliban; that relationship is essential to the character work. For reasons I won’t spoil, the group of 12 splits up into two groups of six (three horses apiece for mounted traversal and tactical combat advantages) designated Alpha and Bravo, and while the book may distribute time fairer to these respective parties, it’s noticeable when a steely persona like Michael Shannon goes missing for some time. It’s just like Dostum said, his eyes tell a story, so it’s a pleasant thing seeing the actor used for subtle tendencies rather than conjuring up a storm with rage as he is told to do with most roles (even though he is most definitely amazing in them).
Keeping that in mind, the entire ensemble is able to create urgency and real danger once the bullets start flying and missiles start crashing into everything in sight (the warfare depicted here is very restrained and realistic, although there are some great moments such as horses getting caught in explosions doing full frontal flips that make for some great popcorn entertainment alongside the valor). In particular, a suicide bombing sequence is both suspenseful and harrowing, as is a nasty spotlight moment where a Taliban commander demonstrates what happens if women want to educate themselves past the age of eight. Much of it terrorizing, but again, it’s balanced out thanks to having an Afghan character that isn’t a villain or silent companion or a random person that offers assistance during a distressing situation. We need more war dramas that aren’t about mindless patriotism (it’s not repeatedly bludgeoned into your skull that these men volunteered immediately after the tragic events on 9/11) and blind hatred, built upon the desire to kill the enemy. Getting rid of the enemy is paramount, but so is understanding the difference between allies and enemies, alongside the thoughts, beliefs, and culture of our allies.
Putting my wishes for peace aside, war never changes, it will always exist, and violence will always play a part in it. 12 Strong offers a number of extended action sequences (all rather competently directed by sophomore filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig) that escalate as the battles become more dangerous. At first, there’s even room for humor (the dialogue is sometimes surprisingly funny with great banter between Dostum and Mitch), but as the mission comes closer to success so does the fear that someone may die against Mitch’s bold promise that no one will perish. Admittedly, there is a firefight during the middle of the film that goes on a tad too long and jarringly comes across as a poorly conceived recreation of a shootout in a third-person shooter video game (complete with Mitch taking cover behind waist-high rocks and popping up to take shots whenever the opportunity arises). It should also be noted that the sound design and attention to detail are superb, although CGI explosions could have used a bit more work. Besides that, it’s all solidly crafted.
The only major flaw with 12 Strong is that it never really generates emotion. Sure, by the time real-life pictures and footage of the heroes are being displayed audiences will want to stand up and applaud, but the characters and overall story never get past the basics of brotherhood. In other words, thankfully that dynamic between Mitch and Dostum does exist to separate 12 Strong from the pack of Afghanistan war movies that add nothing new to the discussion. Locations are also rushed through like crazy (likely to make the film pass by in a reasonable two hours), almost to a point where it’s difficult to take in the visuals. There must be new text to read on-screen every five minutes.
Regardless, 12 Strong is a war drama that gets more right than wrong; it isn’t obsessed with blood and murder, but rather how countries interact with one another, as do different rogue factions within Afghanistan. It has something to say about appreciating different cultures and the true definition of a warrior.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com