Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, Geoff Stults, Taylor Sheridan, Rob Riggle, William Fichtner, Elsa Pataky
MPAA Rating: (for war violence and language throughout)
Running Time: 2:10
Release Date: 1/19/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 18, 2018
The story of the first American soldiers to fight in the War on Terror following the September 11 attacks, 12 Strong is a fine enough recreation of strategy and battle. It opens with the words "Based on a true story" arriving on the screen with a loud thump on the score, as if to announce that the fact of its authenticity is the most vital element of the story. The screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig certainly seems to be operating under that thought. We learn a lot about how this team of Army Special Forces went about their mission to take a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, but we don't learn much about the members of the team, except that they are ones assigned to and set on accomplishing that mission.
We learn a little about a few of the members, mostly that two of them have families to whom they want to return and that one of them has a sense of humor about what's happening. The other nine members of the team exist as recognizable faces during the downtime and uniforms during the action sequences. We assume they have families, too, as well as at least one other characteristic that could be used to define them easily. The movie doesn't bother with such details. Its mind is elsewhere—primarily in detailing the specifics of this mission. The movie's heart is in elevating these men as heroes, with minimal concern with seeing them as people.
There's no denying that what this team did in real life was extraordinary. Flown into a remote region in Afghanistan in the weeks following the 2001 attacks, they had minimal supplies, an uncertain grasp of how the politics of the region would play out with their involvement, and an enemy force that greatly outnumbered them and their local allies. Still, they went forward with the mission, not only because they were so ordered, but also because they wanted to.
That's the unifying trait of every team member here. From the top down, every man understands the responsibility of responding to the most devastating attack perpetrated on the soil of the United States. One could almost excuse the movie (based on the non-fiction book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton) for ignoring the majority of this team, simply because there are so many other things they must do. The movie's primary goal, though, is to honor them. If we don't know them beyond the faces and the uniforms, is it really honoring them, or is it simply transforming them into anonymous heroes?
One character we do get to know to a certain extent is Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), the leader of the team. At the story's start, he has taken a cushy desk job and moved his family into a new home near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. On the morning of September 11, he arrives at the base, looking to assemble his team for action. It's only the protest of Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), who already has his retirement paperwork ready to process, that gets Nelson what he wants.
Spencer is the other soldier who receives the most attention. His family expected him to retire, and now, he's off to a battle from which the odds of surviving are low. Shannon plays the wise officer with enough plainspoken sincerity that even the character's most transparent philosophical musings don't sound as clunky as they are (During a briefing, he openly ponders how a solider can simultaneously love his family and leave them to fight, and since no one acknowledges the musing, even the screenwriters seem to realize how awkward the placement of that moment is). Less attention to paid to Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Peña), the team's occasional jokester, who also has a wife and unseen children.
Upon arriving in Afghanistan, the movie leaves the families and any trace of the ordinariness of these men at home. The mission is to align with a local warlord named General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who hates the Taliban and has ambitions to take control of the region. Nelson's team will help to provide air support and aid Dostum's militia in combat, while only being provided horses by Dostum. The goal is the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, currently under the control of the Taliban (primarily represented by a cruel, murderous commander who's more mustache-twirling villain than an accurate representation of the horror of religious fanaticism).
The remainder of the movie follows the strategy and combat. Tally, Craig and director Nicolai Fuglsig do a fine job establishing the terrain, the plan, and the stakes of each operation before they unfold. Eventually, the team splits into two and, later, three squads in order to cut off the Taliban's tank and supply routes. We can follow along until the fighting begins, at which point Fuglsig displays a firm control over the chaotic confusion of the movie's combat sequences.
This works from a certain perspective, but something is missing. 12 Strong keeps us at a distance from these soldiers to the point that they seem only to exist as a means to accomplish this mission. We know and the movie hints that there's more to them than that. For them, the mission is more important than the man. It's unfortunate that the movie's philosophy is the same.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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