In what is hopefully the last gasp of his typical Hollywood action career, before he fully embraces his destiny as a comedy grunt, Chris Hemsworth stars in 12 Strong, a movie so patriotic and mediocre you’d think it was directed by late-era Clint Eastwood. But it’s not, it’s from Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig, best known for commercials and war photojournalism. This means that Fuglsig has a good eye and a sensitivity for portraying the ravages of war, but unfortunately for him and everyone else, he’s completely knee-capped by a thoroughly pedestrian script and total lack of imagination about what a war movie about a war we’re still fighting could be.
The script is credited to Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town), but I refuse to believe these two are the only people who touched the script. It’s way too common. If anything, 12 Strong most reflects its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer—it’s a jingoistic military action extravaganza that worships Real American Heroes™ without ever examining the cost or consequence of those heroes’ actions. It’s physically painful to hear a character exclaim, “This war will be over in a week,” when we have entered the SEVENTEENTH YEAR of that same war. There are people—almost legally adult people—who do not know an America at peace. Yaaaaay movie.
Based on Doug Stanton’s (far, far better) book, Horse Soldiers—which was also the working title of this project and I have no idea why it was changed to the far stupider and less unique 12 Strong—the movie follows Army Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his special forces squad, the first soldiers dropped into Afghanistan in the weeks after September 11th. And I do mean dropped—the Army was not prepared for a cold weather mountain war, and the soldiers have to be outfitted on the fly by a sporting goods store. They also have to use horses to traverse narrow mountain passes, which essentially means Captain Nelson and his men are co-opted into the cavalry for their mission.
Technically, 12 Strong is proficient. It looks nice enough, and occasionally Fuglsig pulls out a solid image, but for the most part it’s best described as competent. The acting ranges from passable to good, with the standouts being Michael Shannon as the senior warrant officer on the squad, Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes as The One Who Bonds With A Local Kid, and Michael Peña as a cheerfully sarcastic sergeant. Hemsworth struggles with his American accent, but he has enough charisma to make believable the loyalty of Captain Nelson’s men, who follow him despite his lack of actual battle experience.
But no matter how hard it tries to ignore on-going history, 12 Strong cannot escape the shadow of the war in Afghanistan. What Captain Nelson and his squad do is amazing—in just three weeks and being vastly outnumbered, they take the city of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, something the Army thought would take six months to a year. Taking this city is supposed to break the Taliban, and indeed, a post-script says the Taliban considers this their worst defeat. Almost seventeen years ago. It’s hard not to cry at this point.
The movie is very respectful and careful with the legacy of the real life soldiers being portrayed, but it’s a lot less cautious with the Afghanis. There is a brutal and unnecessary scene of a Taliban leader executing a woman who taught her daughters, which exists only to remind us how much the Taliban sucks. Yeah, we know. We’ve been alive in the world for the last seventeen years. (A much more effective scene is a character recalling what his city was like before the Taliban showed up.) And Captain Nelson’s ally in Afghanistan is General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban, Homeland), a Northern Alliance leader whose weariness is a counterpoint to Nelson’s fresh-faced energy. The post-script notes that Nelson and Dostum remain friends, and that Dostum became Vice President of Afghanistan in 2014. It does not mention that Dostum is currently on the lam, accused of assorted war crimes including kidnapping and raping a political rival.
This is the shadow 12 Strong cannot escape. No matter how well acted or well executed, any war movie about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan that does not grapple with the consequences comes across as hollow and shallow. Will it work for some people? Sure. There were people cheering when a Taliban leader got executed Dirty Harry-style. That audience will eat this sh*t up, just like they did Lone Survivor and American Sniper. But the disingenuousness remains.