- Movie Rating -

12 Strong (2018)

| January 18, 2018

If you are an individual who his absolutely hell-bent on viewing America’s conflict in Afghanistan as a patriotic – or even holy – crusade against the tyranny of evil men then you could probably do worse than a movie like 12 Strong.  Movies chronicling the highs and lows of America’s longest war are a dime a dozen and shift heavily between patriotic wet kisses (American Sniper, Act of Valor) and the serious and well-thought out examinations of the individuals involved (Restrepo, The Hurt Locker).  Nicolai Fulsig’s 12 Strong is seated somewhere in the middle.  It’s a well-crafted but not exactly deep examination of the American military’s first strike against the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

You couldn’t fault anyone for wanting to make a movie like this.  Seventeen years on, we are still looking for some measure of catharsis in the worst tragedy in our collective memory and it is likely that the population at large will struggle to find one until all who remember the events of that day are gone from the Earth.  If this movie does it for you, fine, but I can assure you there are other and better means of soothing those wounds.

12 Strong isn’t likely to put salve on anyone’s feelings about 9/11, it’s not really about that.  The trajectory of the film isn’t aimed in that direction, rather it is an involving and well-organized portrait of military organization, how they put together a dangerous operation, strategize the movement of men and materials, communication with allies in the field organize command decisions and quick thinking that take place when things don’t go as planned.

The story itself is based on recently declassified accounts of the mission told publicly for the first time in Doug Stanton’s 2009 book “Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong” about how the Special Forces unit ODA 595, a green beret unit that was the first to engage Taliban forces inside Afghanistan in 2001.  The mission, led by Captain Mitch Nelson (played with effective screen presence by Chris Hemsworth) is to hook up with the leader of the Northern Alliance, a Yoda-like warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Neghban) and fight their way to the Taliban stronghold Mazar-i-Sharif and call in an airstrike to wipe out the Al Qaeda forces they are sheltering.

The mission, not surprisingly, is ridiculously foolhardy.  The unit is outmanned, the terrain is so unpredictable that the military has to move in on horseback, and there is no real guarantee of what General Dostum’s motives are.  All that the military high command can really be sure of is that he hates the Taliban for personal reasons and he’s willing to help anyone wipe them out.

What impressed me about 12 Strong is that the script is about 2 inches deeper than I assumed it would be.  It was written by Ted Tally (Silence of the Lamb) and Peter Craig (Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Parts 1 and 2 and the forthcoming Top Gun sequel) who give the mission and the men involved a little more weight then they should.  Hemsworth makes a reliable lead.  Michael Shannon is good as the steel-eyed second in command.  And Michael Pena and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes are allowed a bit of backstory about their motives and their families back home.  Even Dostum is allowed an understand personal motivation and lifelong experience.

It was generous of the filmmakers to allow such inch-level complexities.  Of course, you can’t exactly call it a character study.  There are still the standard war movie clichés and the expected ra-ra right-wing patriotism, but it is refreshing that the movie doesn’t sink under the weight of too much speechifying and sactamonious what-is-war-really-all-about nonsense.  The guys are in the desert to do a job.  They do it.  We know the stakes.  And the guys are personable enough that we fear for them even though we know that in real life, the entire team made it out alive.  It’s an entertaining ride while you’re watching it, but its motivations are underpinned by the fact that this is the first act in a war that will wage on for another 13 years.  The battle, by the end of the film, is over and the Taliban has been weakened but the war is far from over.  12 Strong is an effective ride but it is best not to contemplate on the war still to come.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Action