Film Review – 12 Strong
There’s that old adage that says that there is no such thing as an “anti-war” film, because combat on screen is inherently exciting. We don’t focus so much on the death, destruction and the vileness of warfare, but on the heroism, valor, and bravery that goes into taking part in battle. It’s strange – that something that has caused the loss of countless lives throughout history – could also be inspiring and moving at the same time.
12 Strong (2018) is a perfect example of this. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig and written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig (adapting Doug Stanton’s book, “Horse Soldiers”), the film recounts the declassified story of the first American Special Forces sent into Afghanistan just after the 9/11 attacks. Yet we don’t see much of the attack itself outside of a few minutes of a news report. Instead, Fuglsig and his team narrow their focus on Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his team of highly skilled soldiers as they all volunteer for the counter attack.
The narrative briskly makes its way through the lives of these men. Mitch and his partners Hal (Michael Shannon) and Sam (Michael Peña) all have their moments as they say goodbye to their wives and families (unfortunately, these characters are relegated to bystander roles, and are barely seen from again). Before we know it, their team ends up deep in the heart of Afghanistan, joining forces with an Afghani tribe lead by General Dostum (Navid Negahban). Their mission: provide airstrike support for Dostum and his men as they make their way down a stretch of land controlled by Taliban and Al Queda forces. One hitch though: the enemy is locked and loaded with tanks, jeeps, and heavy artillery. Other than the weapons they carry and a radio for air strikes, Mitch and Dostum will have to lead their troops on horseback.
This set up makes for an archetypal underdog story: the good guys on horses up against overwhelming odds. But apparently it did happen. We learn that there is a statue erected at the World Trade Center site commemorating the “horse soldiers” and what they did at the very beginning of the war. As a film, the story is exciting and action packed, but typical of the genre. The usual tropes are there: the guys joking around with each other and the deep talks about “what it all means” and “why are we doing this?” We even get the obligatory shot where a character gets knocked down from an explosion and all sound seems to cut out. It’s an effective cinematic move, even though it’s been used repeatedly since Saving Private Ryan (1998).
12 Strong doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. The plot turns repetitive once the second act begins. The men travel, plot out their course, get involved in a firefight, escape at the very last moment, talk about it, and then repeat it all over again the next day. That’s not to say that this didn’t happen in real life, but on screen there isn’t much that distinguishes one battle from another.
Chris Hemsworth is perfectly suitable for the lead. The role requires him to make the most of his stature and physicality, and he more than lives up to the expectation. He isn’t allowed to have the charm and likeability that he was given as Thor, but perhaps that wouldn’t be so appropriate in this regard. Michael Shannon is surprisingly subdued as Hal. Perhaps Shannon has played eccentric roles so often that to see him as a relatively “normal” person is almost a shock. And Trevante Rhodes (of Moonlight fame) makes the most of the little screen time he gets. His character develops a nice little friendship with an Afgani boy – blink and you may miss it.
For those of you that are interested in artillery and other forms of weaponry, you will get your money’s worth here. There are some spectacular shots of gunfire, explosions, and rocket launches, a lot of which are done fairly realistically. Often, the cinematography (Rasmus Videbaek) will take a long wide shot, or a shot from an aerial viewpoint, as an air strike comes crashing down into the landscape. The explosions are a sight to behold. During one action scene, missiles are fired at the side of a mountain, and power of it looked pretty darn convincing. Fuglsig, apparently not afraid to indulge himself, doesn’t shy away from placing his characters in the foreground as bombs go off in the far distance, or capturing a soldier charging on horseback as missiles whiz by like fireworks. In terms of just the action alone, the picture has some riveting singular moments.
I just wish 12 Strong had a bit more going for it from an emotional standpoint. I can fully agree that the production behind this had the best intention to honor these men and what they did, but I couldn’t shake the notion that the film treated the action like a kid playing in a sandbox.