12 Strong (United States, 2018)

January 19, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
12 Strong Poster

12 Strong represents a recent war as depicted on screen in an old-fashioned way.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, war movies followed an established template that pitted the “good guys” (often Americans) against the “bad guys.” Such films focused on battles and usually ended with a hard-fought victory. In the wake of the unpopular Vietnam War, however, a new breed of war films emerged. Those focused on the less heroic aspects of combat, often with brutal depictions of the associated carnage. There was also greater attention paid to the difficulties many soldiers had re-acclimatizing to life at home. A majority of war films made post-1970 fell into this category with traditional/throw-back fare representing exceptions.  12 Strong fits into the “exception” category.

The tone falls just short of the macho, kick-ass feeling of a fictional action story. Although the film acknowledges that war isn’t exclusively a rah-rah experience, it tends toward glorifying combat rather than emphasizing its dehumanizing aspects. Of course, that’s by intent. Director Nicolai Fuglsig (making his feature debut) has set out to provide a testosterone-laced, visceral account of events in Afghanistan during October 2001; his intention isn’t to offer a dark exploration of the impact of war on the psyche. To that extent, he is successful. The battle scenes are well filmed, replete with the requisite doses of adrenaline. There are instances of suspense and moments of intensity. Although the characters are all types, the performances are strong enough that we identify with them despite their lack of depth.

The story at the foundation of 12 Strong is based on the events related in Doug Stanton’s non-fictional book, Horse Soldiers. Some changes have been made to allow for a “more cinematic” experience, but the essence of the narrative remains true to what really happened. Still, those interested in the full account are pointed toward the book; Fuglsig’s adaptation is interested primarily in pacing and excitement. The filmmakers’ few attempts to expand the canvas generally don’t work. The opening scenes, which establish family relationships, feel trite and perfunctory. Equally unconvincing is the relationship between one of the soldiers and the Afghan boy assigned to be his “protector.” There’s also an out-of-place sequence showing a Taliban mullah killing a teacher for instructing girls in reading and math. I suppose this is intended to emphasize the evil of the Taliban but it feels gratuitous and unnecessary.

Following a brief prologue set on and shortly after September 11, 2001, 12 Strong takes the action to Afghanistan, where a detachment of Green Berets joins forces with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance. Although Dostum’s goal is to take Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, this proves to be a tactically difficult task even with U.S. air support. The twelve Green Berets are led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon). Other notable members of the group are Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Pena) and Sergeant Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).

Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif is the way it combines 18th century equipment and tactics with state-of-the-art late 20th century weaponry. To that end, Nelson and his compatriots charge into battle on horseback…after calling in bombing runs from B52s cruising at 30,000 feet. Donald Rumsfeld referred to this attack as “the first American cavalry charge of the 21st century.”

Lack of psychological complexity and character development shouldn’t be held against 12 Strong. The movie does a good job at what it sets out do and will likely please the target demographic (those who have appreciated other recent patriotic films like American Sniper and Lone Survivor). It’s well made and, although not sufficiently deep or thematically rich to stand the test of time, it offers a salute to courage, determination, and the importance of diplomacy in developing and cementing alliances. For those who enjoy war films, especially those with an “old fashioned” bent, 12 Strong offers two solid hours.

12 Strong (United States, 2018)

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner
Home Release Date: 2018-05-01
Screenplay: Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on the book by Doug Stanton
Cinematography: Rasmus Videbaek
Music: Lorne Balfe
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2018-01-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (War Violence, Profanity)
Genre: War/Thriller
Subtitles: In English and Russian with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1