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12 Strong

 Horse Soldiers 

Chris Hemsworth
Chris Hemsworth
Warner Brothers
 130 Minutes
Directed byNicolai Fuglsig
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon 
12 Strong

War movies have always been political, but more so in recent years as many in this country have an increasingly polarized view of the propriety of either the particular war or war in general, and that view influences the movie being made to an even greater extent. So, in regard to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get anti-war statements like The Green Room and more bombastic, flag waving ones like 13 Hours. The question a reviewer faces in examining a film of this nature is to what extent an opinion can or should be based on the artistic and technical merits of the film as opposed to the political message being conveyed and whether the reviewer agrees with it or not. And once again, reviewers are faced with that exact same question in regard to 12 Strong, a tale of the early days of the war in Afghanistan, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the loudest and most bombastic moviemakers in Hollywood.


There is no one single, easy way to look at a film like 12 Strong, which is why the reviews have been all over the board. My own philosophy about a film like this is to ask myself, first, can I divorce myself from any political statements in the movie, or have the filmmakers so entangled the politics with the story that no independent review of the merits of the film is possible. And, second, if I can look at the movie as simply an entertainment, then how entertaining is it? The answers, at least as far as 12 Strong is concerned, is that most of the time, the movie steered far enough away from politics not to be overbearing, and, as an action adventure, it’s a pretty good example of the genre.


12 Strong is based on a storyline that would be rejected by every studio in Hollywood but for the fact that it’s basically a true story. Shortly after the 9/11 bombings, an elite squad of Green Berets were sent into Afghanistan to assist insurgent forces and managed to capture a key Taliban stronghold in a matter of a few days, leading to the collapse of the government not long after. If that were not amazing enough, the Green Berets and their insurgent allies accomplished that feat by moving around and, occasionally going into battle on horseback.


The squad in question is led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who cut his leave short and volunteered for the assignment immediately after the World Trade Center bombing. Along with the rest of his unit, Nelson meets with insurgent leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who is planning the advance on the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. Nelson and a couple of his men accompany Dostum on the advance, where Nelson’s mission is to call in air strikes against Taliban forces when needed. The Air Force pilots require the exact coordinates of the enemy forces for the strikes to be accurate, and Nelson immediately clashes with Dostum, who does not want the American close to the actual fighting where he would risk getting injured. Eventually, however, Nelson impresses Dostum, both with his valor under fire and with his horsemanship in maneuvering his steed through treacherous mountain terrain. Eventually, Dostum gets within striking range of the Taliban stronghold, only to find that the pass that leads to the city is heavily fortified and guarded by tanks and rocket-powered artillery.


The real life “Mitch Nelson” (the names of all the squad members were changed for the film, although Dostum is real and is now vice-president of Afghanistan) served as a technical advisor on the film, which is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Doug Stanton. With a wealth of resources to describe the factual and political background of the book, veteran screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig wisely concentrate on the plot details rather than try to build character.


As a result of 12 Strong’s focus on the plot, only two of the characters besides Nelson make any impression whatsoever, his second-in-command Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), and Mitch’s pal Sam Diller (Michael Pena), who supplies much of the film’s comic relief. Of course, as soon as the audience learns that Diller put off his retirement to go on this mission, they can guess that his chances of emerging unscathed are pretty slim. The rest of the squad members are little more than gun toting, glorified extras. In many movies, this lack of character development would be a big drawback, but 12 Strong has enough going for it that the audience is invested in the outcome of the mission without having to identify with the troops.


The real positive in 12 Strong is the insight it gives into the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that is barely if at all understood by a large segment of the public. The movie does engage in some flag waving (there are the obligatory patriotic speeches in the wake of 9/11), but after the troops arrive in country, they simply become soldiers on a difficult mission. The film makes no effort to humanize the Taliban enemy other than to have Dostum point out how willing they are to die, and the Taliban leader, who executes his own troops who try to surrender, bears a striking (and unnecessary) resemblance to the evil Jaffar from Disney’s Aladdin.


Although director Nikolai Fugilsig is a novice, he is a veteran combat photographer and has an eye for framing action scenes. As a result, the action is easy to follow and often quite exciting. As an action film, 12 Strong is quite solid, especially the final battle featuring a horseback charge against tanks and heavy armament.


That such a charge could actually take place in the 21st century is one of the many fascinating revelations in the film. Even those familiar with the conflict in Afghanistan will probably learn a thing or two, such as the fear the insurgents had that the U.S. might pull out if any of our soldiers were killed. The film also reveals that the “insurgency” was not a united rebel army but a very loose coalition of soldiers loyal to their individual commanders, who might start fighting each other at any time. And, in the most harrowing sequence in the film, U.S. soldiers have to decide whether Taliban forces trying to surrender are genuine or merely looking to get close enough to do some damage.


As war movies go, 12 Strong is solid, albeit far from spectacular filmmaking, of the type I used to enjoy at Saturday matinees a half century ago. The farther removed it gets from the battlefield, the weaker it becomes. But if offers an added bonus of an insider’s look at a chaotic war and a spectacular success for U.S. forces under very difficult circumstances. Its politics are definitely right of center but not overwhelmingly so, and liberals will be able to enjoy pretty much the same things in the film that conservatives do. 12 Strong isn’t by any means a definitive film on the Afghan War, but it’s a fairly strong one.

In this scene, Chris Hemsworth tells his team what they will be facing in Afghanistan.

Read other reviews of 12 Strong: 

12 Strong (2018) on IMDb