12 Strong calls in the cavalry on Al-Qaeda in Nicolai Fuglsig’s “declassified true story of the horse soldiers”. Spurred by the 9/11 terror attacks, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leaves behind a safe, cushy military desk job to lead a team of special forces to the sandy front lines of the War on Terror. There, he must earn the trust of an Afghan warlord to take down a critical Taliban position. We’re told repeatedly that the fate of the War rests on this mission’s success and, well, we all know how that one turned out. Generic on most accounts, 12 Strong is an inoffensive American war movie relying on offensive war-mongering tactics. The semi-sturdy if mostly unremarkable acting and blasé set pieces lack the praise-worthy or memorable accents to set 12 Strong aside from the harras.
In order to get the audience (and characters) all revved up, 12 Strong starts in quasi-manipulative fashion with Mitch watching on TV as that second fated commercial airliner careens into the South Tower. Minutes later he’s on base, demanding to be sent into battle, his new job title be damned. Getting the go-ahead to lead the charge against the Taliban, his team, which includes Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Taylor Sheridan and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, is keyed up and ready for action.12 Strong does a half-decent job of playing up the group’s camaraderie and brotherhood without actually giving us anything unique to glom onto about these characters or relationships. They’re boilerplate heroes making boilerplate promises to return home to their boilerplate wives and boilerplate children. The performances across the board are somewhat muted, with little standing out at all, a fact that’s hard to believe when you have the likes of oddball Shannon and goof Peña rounding out the cast. Only Rhodes makes much of an impression as a tough guy who bonds with a young Afghan and even that fails to move the dial much. Hemsworth’s American accent has improved a bit since his embarrassing turn in Blackhat but as the all-American Mitch, he struggles nailing that flat homeland cadence, leading to a performance that itself is dulled and monotonous, lacking the sparkle that makes Hemsworth so watchable.
What stands out about 12 Strong is how much the landscape of war has changed in the modern century. We’ve seen countless sword and sandal battlefields, trudged through infinite swamplands in Vietnam and witnessed the hellacious confusion of the War in Iraq through the eyes of many a filmmaker but 12 Strong introduces a new element of modern war tactics, one that lacks the punch and glory of traditional warfare. These heroes, more than anything, are spotters. Calling in enemy coordinates for the American overhead fleet to carpet with smart bombs. Had they been perfectly effective, this troop would never have seen a lick of actual battle.
General Dotsum (Navid Negahban), an Afghan warlord-cum-warrior who Mitch and company share an uneasy alliance with, muses, “You control the sky but wars are won in the dirt.” And while, yes, horses are definitely involved, the war is fought primarily from a bird’s eye view.
There’s one throwaway line or another about “How do we even know if that’s the Taliban?” when Mitch is phoning in the jets and their accompanying payloads but 12 Strong doesn’t bother poking and prodding at the very real collateral damage produced by wreath bombing tactics. This is supposed to be a starkly black and white issue and screenwriters Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) either aren’t up for introducing much moral grey or have their hands tied by whoever is financing the film (*cough* THE PENTAGON *cough*).
As if the Twin Towers weren’t motivation enough, 12 Strong further antagonizes its audience when a Taliban leader publicly executes a woman for educating little girls. Don’t get me wrong, the Taliban is awful, full stop, and there is no shortage of horrors they engaged in on an hourly basis but 12 Strong going out of the way to display a public execution, or to have its characters watch women get stoned to death on YouTube, only seems to further capitalize on this almost cartoonish divide between U.S. heroes in shining armor and dirty beard-tossing villains. Nuance it seems has gone running for cover.
Dodging pertinent queries for action movie hoorah, 12 Strong succeeds in positively branding the US military, something that appears to be its most vital goal. With this film, I find it difficult to parse out the aggrandizement of the U.S military might from the celebration of this actual true story. Surely it’s a hell of a tale – one I won’t spoil here – but it deliberately paints the US as saviors to a victimized country, heroes without asterix. Whatever his intention, Fuglsig has executed first and foremost a very high-budget Special Forces recruitment video.
CONCLUSION: A glossy war propaganda movie trojan horsed as a hero’s journey, ’12 Strong’ is *almost* good but never quite manages to unseat its jingostic tendencies, galloping to mediocrity on the backs of some none-too-interesting performances.