“12 Strong” is an Underwhelming Tribute to the ‘Horse Soldiers’ of the Afghan War
The newest ode to the American warrior is 12 Strong (subtitle: The Unclassify True Story of the Horse Soldiers). Which follows a dozen Special Forces soldiers who are surreptitiously choppered into northern Afghanistan less than two months after 9/11. Their mission was incredibly perilous, but they weren’t on the ground to fight.
Their job was to embed themselves with warlords in the Northern Alliance. Ride on small-ish, mountain-ready horses through the yawning passes; and radio coordinates of Taliban strongholds to U.S. planes that had previously been bombing blind. Securing the north — and the key city of Mazar-i-Sharif — would set up the U.S. and its allies for a full-scale invasion of Kabul.
Until then, those 12 Americans were alone in a land they didn’t know amid tribes whose actions. They couldn’t predict and with tens of thousands of nearby Taliban fighters itching to carve them up, slowly.Back in the 1950s and 1960s. War movies follow an establish template that pitted the “good guys” (often Americans) against the “bad guys.” Such films focus on battles and usually end with a hard-fought victory.
In the wake of the unpopular Vietnam War, however, a new breed of war films emerg.
Those focus on the less heroic aspects of combat, often with brutal depictions of the associat 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 movie, based on the terrific book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, is only so-so. But it moves at a fair clip and fills in a lot of details about the early successes of the Afghanistan War. It’s also rich in manly nods, of the sort that signal, “Well done, brother.” Those are always very gratifying.
Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson. Who watches the Twin Towers fall on TV and abandons his stun family (his wife refuses sex so he’ll come back). That to rejoin the Special Forces team he’s only recently quit. When Nelson’s superior declines to restore him to leadership. Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon. He remains on pace to act in more movies than anyone ever while also doing plays). And makes a fierce case on behalf of his old comrade: “You break this team up, you’re cutting the head off your most venomous snake!”
Snake parts firmly reassemble, Nelson, Spencer, and their men (play by Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes. Exactly eight others) fly to Uzbekistan, 97 miles. That from the Afghan border and the bailiwick of Colonel Mulholland, play by William Fichtner at his most prickly. Meeting Fichtner’s live-wire stare is a test for any man and Hemsworth holds his mud.
Mulholland says, “Nineteen men made war against the U.S. on 9/11. You 12 will be the first ones to fight back.”
In no time the team is Chinooking to Afghanistan (“grave of empires”) at a hypoxia-inducing 14,000 feet to greet the next eccentric character actor. Navid Negahban, as Northern Alliance warlord General Dostun.
Negahban — who play Abu Nazir on Homeland and, according to IMDb. He counts both Barack Obama and Shimon Peres as big fans — declaims most of his lines from atop his horse, mocking his new American friends. While simultaneously showing them off to his suitably awed countrymen.
The best part is when Dostun phones his mortal enemy, Taliban commander Khaled (Fahim Fazli). And says, “The Americans are here. Fuck you.” Khaled had earlier put a bullet in the head of a female teacher for daring to teach spelling and arithmetic to little girls. The movie periodically cuts to him glowering from under his black beard.
Nelson sets a goal of three weeks to bomb the bejeezus out of the Taliban and move on Mazar-i-Sharif. The film is helpful enough to keep track of the time for us: “Days in Country: 5,” etc.
There’s a good mix of ultra-precise tech jargon and ultra-foggy anxiety (“Somethin’ ain’t right here,” “Heads on swivel!”)
As well as weird stuff unique to this war. That like the sardonic CIA operative with the shoulder bag of cash who drops a load. And then trudges off into the desert in search of the next bribable tribesmen. Another thing you don’t see too often: Shannon’s Spencer slips a disk. While riding one of those low-to-the-ground horses over the hard terrain and spends the climax calling in coordinates flat on his back.
The story at the foundation of 12 Strong is based on the events relate 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 happen. Still, those interest in the full account are point toward the book; Fuglsig’s adaptation is interest 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 assigne 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 intend to emphasize the evil of the Taliban but it feels gratuitous and unnecessary.
Rating: R (for war violence and language throughout)
Genre: Action & Adventure, Drama
Directed By: Nicolai Fuglsig
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña
Written By: Peter Craig, Ted Tally
In Theaters: Jan 19, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: May 1, 2018
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
The action is frequent and gripping, the heroism present but understated, and the sense of tactical complexity has survived the script-writing process, so there is more geo-political subtlety than one expects from a post-9/11 American war movie.
Yes, it’s intense jingoistic nonsense and full of hilarious caricatures – watch out for US enemy No 1, the evil Arab Mullah Razzan, played by Numan Acar in deadpan homage to Aladdin’s cartoon nemesis Jafar.
It’s all very easy: a feelgood war tale from what feels like a distant age.
It’s all solid from a technical perspective. Where the film could have used more power is in its narrative momentum.