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12 STRONG (2018) review

January 21, 2018

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written by: Ted Tally and Peter Craig
produced by: Jerry Bruckheimer, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill & Trent Luckinbill
directed by: Nicolai Fuglsig
rated: R (for war violence and language throughout)
runtime: 129 min.
U.S. release date: January 19, 2018

 

We’re long past the point where it feels like it’s too soon to see movies with a 9-11 retaliation story.  It’s now cliche to see scenes in movies of this subgenre where characters, usually soldiers or their spouses, viewing televised September 11 news footage of the twin towers and forming that look of “something must be done” on their face – well, at least on the soldier’s face, the look on the soldiers’ wife usually reads, “I know that look”. You may wonder how a “based on a true story” tale of patriotism like “12 Strong” could come across as formulaic when it’s supposedly following something that actually happened, but when recognizable tropes and characterizations appear in yet another “Inspiring War Film”, it gets a little tiring. 

“12 Strong” is the American directorial debut of Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig, who learned his craft while filming the Kosovo War in the late 90s. Based on the 2010 non-fiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan and adapted for the big-screen by Ted Tally (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Peter Craig (“Blood Father”), the movie also known as “12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers” tells the story of CIA paramilitary officers and U.S. Special Forces, in addition to USAF Combat Controllers, essentially the first task force sent to Afghanistan immediately after the September 11 attacks.

If you were to ask the average American if we’re still at war in Afghanistan, they’d answer “no”. Of course, that’s not true. The reason they’d answer that way is because the current U.S. involvement in the Middle East combat doesn’t make the news (at least not U.S. outlets), despite still occurring sixteen years after the retaliation detailed in “12 Strong”. I’m sure Stanton’s book is detailed and enthralling, but it seems like making a movie out of it designed to sidetrack us with a victory while the war continues, unbeknownst to so many viewers.

 

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The “12 Strong” timeframe ranges from the unknowing hours leading up to 9-11 to the months that succeed that horrific tragedy. The twelve men we see get reassembled and sent out to the mountainous regions of Afghanistan in response to the attack on U.S. soil are part of Task Force Dagger. Led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), whom at the opening of the movie is settling down with his family (Hemsworth’s real life wife, Elsa Pataky, plays his wife here) in Kentucky. They’re seen unpacking boxes in their home on the morning of September 11th, when real time news footage comes on the television and…well, you know the rest.

In no time, Mitch (a character based on Mark Nutsch), heads off to ask Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle), Commander of 3rd Battalion/5th Special Forces Group, to get his band of brothers back together. Bowers isn’t having it and there’s an implication that there’s a reason why Mitch, who hasn’t experienced a minute of actual combat, isn’t head of a team anymore, but the movie never gets into that. After his wingman, Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), persuades Bowers to bring Mitch back in, the task force is reformed, including Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes “Moonlight”) and sent on a new mission which would be the first retaliation effort after the events on 9-11.

Their goal was to team-up with and support General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban “Homeland”) of the Northern Alliance, in their effort to wipe out the Taliban and damage Al-Queda. It doesn’t take long for Mitch to realize that it would be best for his crew to move forward with their mission on horseback due to perilous terrain. It also becomes clear that although his paramilitary officers and green berets are quite able and capable, Mitch will need to work well with with the stoic and disciplined Dostrum. In doing so, Mitch learns a valuable lesson in leading men and the need to possess a warrior’s spirit in the heart of battle, as they make their way to the vital Taliban outpost at Mazar-i-Sharif..

 

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It’s still odd to me to watch a war movie in which the war is still talking place in real life. Lives have been lost on both sides in the last sixteen years and yet somehow it’s okay to have a movie that literally emphasizes that “bad guys wear black” with a Hollywood version of military service (complete with concerned-yet-supportive wives at home and solid bro-camaraderie in the field) that puts an exclamation point behind every black-clad Taliban baddie getting mowed down by deliberate gunfire or obliterated from by air bombs dropped from above. I guess I’m supposed to feel a sense of “Team America” patriotism while watching “12 Strong”, but I couldn’t help but see how “America and company” were basically responding to the attacks on 9-11 with more attacks.

Maybe that seems logical to you, but as I watched this I found myself wondering where these cyclical attacks have gotten us – and by “us” I mean mankind. Is it clear the areas “we’re” bombing in this movie over and over, are the ones directly responsible for the attacks on 9-11? Do we have to have fireballs filling the sky in the distance silhouetted by our heroes in the foreground screaming “victory”? There’s no questioning whether or not what they’re doing is right or the long-term ramifications of these battles. I have a great deal of appreciation and respect for the courage and bravery of these men, but a movie like this is more concerned than battlefield heroics over any moral conundrums.

“12 Strong” is quite an undertaking for a feature-length debut and with this being his first movie, director Nicolai Fuglsig stays within the checklist of expectations for a movie like this. Many of the battle sequences play like something out of a Call of Duty video game and the geography of it all – such as where they are and where they need to be – gets quite hazy in all the explosive commotion. Veteran producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“The Rock” and “Black Hawk Down”) serves as one of the producers here and he’s definitely someone who knows how to make a slick action picture out of a war movie, but what’s missing is a level of nuance and richness of the characters we’re following. I guess I didn’t expect as much, but it sure would be welcome.

 

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The acting talent in “12 Strong” is present and accounted for, but the focus here is on the strategy and dangers of the mission at hand, leaving very little time for character study. Hemsworth leads the cast with action hero acumen, Shannon is spot-on in a surprisingly understated role, and Peña does what he’s been given recently by supplying the movie with bits of comic relief. Rhodes however, who was so powerful in “Moonlight”, is relegated to befriending an armed Muslim boy who follows him around like a puppy. A bald Willian Fichtner has a brief role as Colonel John Mulholland/5th Special Forces Group Commander, who has his reservations about Task Force Dagger succeeding. By far, the most interesting character is Dostrum and Negahban provides the best performance, offering a measured richness for a character who has suffered personal loss, has a conflicted past and a complicated present.

When it comes to the action sequences, they are mostly confusing and hard to follow and  I found it hard to believe these guys could shoot so accurately on horseback when apparently only a couple of them were accustomed to action in the saddle. Their ammo seems unlimited (like in a video game) and since we know they all survive (or why else tell the story?), in the end it all just feels like an uncomfortable form of entertainment to me. I emphasize “to me”, knowing full well there are viewers who will simply see this as an inspiring story of bravery and courage and how dare anyone think otherwise.

But hey, it’s January – at month where movies like “The Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” made a ton of money just because they offer American soldiers killing evil A-Rabs “for our freedom”. At their best, these stories can inspire, bringing harrowing and immersive stories of bravery and courage. At their worst, they can come across as cloying propaganda, offering very little of who the characters we’re watching truly are and instead they celebrating war violence and jingoistic zeal, writing off casualties as victories. Somewhere in the middle of all that is “12 Strong”.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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