12 Strong (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
The story is an interesting one to tell from the endless stream of narratives still emerging from the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Largely well-acted, 12 Strong scores in showing the bond these soldiers have with one another, their collective mission, their fears and their dedication.
Will play extremely well with audiences who like American Sniper, 13 Hours, Lone Survivor and more of the recent slate of pro-American war films we have seen in recent years.
12 Strong does not exactly give an objective side to the story. Many in the target audience may not care about this fact, but if you're going to accurately present a story...accurately present the story.
Quite honestly, 12 Strong, thematically and structurally, is a movie we have seen dozens of times before. These films are now riddled with cliche and formulaic beats that become tiresome to sit through.
Will play extremely poorly with audiences who found American Sniper, 13 Hours, Lone Survivor and more of the recent slate of pro-American war films to be problematic and jingoistic.
Following in the footsteps of 13 Hours..., American Sniper, and Lone Survivor, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced 12 Strong is a film that wears its patriotism directly on its sleeve and tries ever so hard to restrain itself from being overly jingoistic and pro-American. And it succeeds for a little while, until a muddled message and some Hollywood screenwriting take over and the film dovetails into little more than a problematic propaganda exercise.
The story at the heart of the film is one worth exploring. The proverbial "12 Strong" reference the soldiers of ODA-595, a Special Forces unit selected to be the first soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan in the weeks following 9/11. Risks abound everywhere, from the decision on how to attempt to take Taliban stronghold Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth-largest city, to the plan to advance village by village in getting there, to the choice of Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) to lead the unit, despite his never having been in combat.
Respected among his fellow soldiers, there is little opposition to Nelson's promotion and some six weeks after the U.S. is attacked, ODA-595 land in a place dubbed "The Alamo." When someone reminds another soldier that everyone died at the Alamo, we recognize the comparison, as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the region outnumber coalition forces some 5,000 to one.
Undeterred, they press on. Nelson is instructed to connect with General Dostrum (Navid Negahbah), an ally of sorts whose only commonality with the Americans is the mutual desire to defeat the Taliban. A shaky "Northern Alliance" is formed and together, the teams seek out Razzan (Numan Acar, in a deeply problematic portrayal), as the man to target. By getting to him, the hope is that the stronghold falls, the Taliban retreat, and an Al-Qaeda training ground is eliminated.
Hemsworth is more than able to carry this movie on his broad shoulders and first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig focuses on him time and again to be the centering element for the film. Surrounding him are talented actors - Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, and Trevante Rhodes to name a few, but the screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig seems lost in how to incorporate them effectively into the story.
Rhodes is given an underwritten subplot involving an Uzbek boy who is tasked with shadowing ("protecting") him, Peña, as expected, cracks jokes, and Shannon, always a joy to see on screen, feels miscast, out of place in a somewhat sympathetic role which is never given any real emotional depth for the talented actor to explore.
Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty this is not.
Almost exclusively interested in just the American side of the story, 12 Strong leaves stark truths and realities, present in our world, completely off the table. Reminder: we remain at war in Afghanistan and 12 Strong's irresponsible inaccuracies should be taken to task, even if few who see this will ever likely question what they are being given on screen.
Reportedly collated from "declassified" reports and adapted from a best-selling Doug Stanton book, Tally and Craig play up the heroism to 11. And yes, the success ODA-595 and the Northern Alliance had against the Taliban is absolutely worth celebrating.
And yet, the sobering reality is that no less than a few months after Mazar-i-Sharif fell because of their remarkable bravery and courage, then-Afghani president Hamid Karzai allowed the city to slip through his hands. Since 2002, Mazar-i-Sharif has been witness to some horrific acts of violence and over two dozen assassinations of elders and leaders within the city.
You certainly won't learn of this in 12 Strong.
So while the film is not fair and balanced (ahem), and the Taliban characters are given no agency whatsoever, we try and enjoy a competently directed war film unspool before us.
Fuglsig, a Danish commercial director in previous years, seems keenly aware of how to present an effective action sequence and delivers some impressive sequences in the film. While most of recent slate of war films take the setting and locations for granted, Fuglsig seems in awe of his location, allowing cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk room to work. As a result, 12 Strong has an effective visual orientation to time and place that I very much appreciated.
This is precisely the kind of movie that can be seen two distinctly different ways. No one is questioning the courage these soldiers showed in improbably succeeding in what was essentially the first military offensive on the ground in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance. But also, no one is willing to ask what this ultimately achieved.
And in assessing 12 Strong, that's a fair question. Because, as we sit here in January 2018, the Afghanistan War has become the longest war in American history. And with no signs of ending, and more than 2,250 American servicemembers and more than 170,000 civilians killed in the region since the fall of 2001, should we really be celebrating anything until this war is finally over?
CAST & CREW
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Austin Hébert, Austin Stowell, Ben O'Toole, Arshia Mandavi, Elsa Pataky, Numan Acar.
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Written by: Ted Tally, Peter Craig
Adapted from the book "Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan" by Doug Stanton
Release Date: January 19, 2018