'12 Strong': Film Review

Jerry Bruckheimer has achieved the impossible: a feel-good movie about the war in Afghanistan.
1/19/2018

Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon star in a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, fact-based actioner about a risky U.S. operation in Afghanistan.

This is the closest thing to a John Wayne movie since The Duke hung up his holster. Although set in Afghanistan in the days just after 9/11 when a dirty dozen American Special Forces operatives — the Green Berets, no less — were dropped into off some of the Taliban and Al Qaeda perpetrators, 12 Strong is both an entertaining and mildly risible real-life-inspired yarn that comes off as much like a Western as a modern war film, right down to having some of the Americans ride into battle on horseback.

This may be the first big studio release that feels like it was made by and for Trump's America, which should translate into muscular business in red states at least. Here at last is a modern Hollywood film that would be suitable viewing under current management at the White House.

Quite apart from the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure sequels, not to mention the continuing cascade of TV series, this is also the first feature that feels like a real Jerry Bruckheimer production in at least a decade, maybe more. It's got it all: The buff stud military swagger, the innocuous young dude horseplay, the hefty high-tech hardware, the casual can-do attitude and the one-dimensional approach to character, geopolitics and military adventurism. Go USA!

This may also be the first 9/11-centered Hollywood film aimed partly at viewers who were still in diapers or weren't even born when the World Trade Center was attacked, as this year marks the 17th anniversary. It's based on an action, fully detailed for the first time in Doug Stanton's acclaimed 2009 book Horse Soldiers, that was long classified: that being a very risky incursion by the Americans, along with General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Northern Alliance of Afghan fighters, into the Taliban-controlled northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. The objective was simple and clear: Take the town and you control the North.

What makes the story legitimately compelling is that there was no precedent for how to proceed against this shadowy enemy. Young, testosterone-loaded soldiers can say they're going to kick ass all they want — and they do — but it's another matter how they're going to go about it under such murky circumstances in so unfamiliar and unfriendly a region. They've got high-tech equipment up the wazoo, as well as B-52 air support. And with Thor himself, aka Chris Hemsworth, leading the charge, how can the outcome be in any doubt?

Still, as Hemsworth's Captain Mitch Nelson rightly puts it, “There is no playbook here. We're gonna have to write it ourselves.” Other than for the fact that a few team members are played by recognizable actors — Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes — no effort is made to differentiate the majority of the team members, so it's virtually all Hemsworth's show and he's entirely up to the task of carrying the film on his broad shoulders. Nelson is charismatic, fearless, confident, jokey and a good ol' Kentucky boy who just wants to get the job done and return home to his wife and daughter.

The ridiculous imbalance in manpower — the enemy outnumbered the Yanks by 5,000 to one — unavoidably raises the specter of the Alamo, which you wouldn't think is a good thing, given the outcome there. But once they get the support of the wary Dostum (Navid Negahban, the Americans seem to be on the right track. (Dostum, who has shifted affiliations countless times, is a real survivor — he was Afghanistan's vice president up until last year, when he had to flee under strange circumstances.)

The script by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town and two Hunger Games entries) is tight and elemental, full of orders, logistics and a full complement of good ol' boy cracks. What the men were getting themselves into was scary enough: With little preparation, they were dropped under cover of night into forbidding mountain territory overrun with fierce and well-armed fighters whose greatest dream was to kill more Americans. But the biggest challenge for some of them was the one thing they weren't trained for: riding horses, which were the ordinary means of transport for Afghans in this difficult terrain. Nelson does his best to offer instruction and encouragement, but some of the guys just aren't up to it, which is a nice joke.

All the same, the tone here is familiar and unvarying — it's all macho, all the time, which comes across as a peculiar mixture of appealing, juvenile, sexy, retrograde, jingoistic and fantasy-inspiring. It may also be the first and only example of a U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan that was a pure and undiluted success: All 12 guys survived, the Taliban was kicked back on its heels and these Americans all got to go back home to their families. If you want a happy ending to any U.S.-in-Afghanistan narrative, maybe you want to quit right here, as the film does.

So while this particular real-life drama came out right from the American perspective, there's not a speck of foreshadowing as to what lay ahead, of the fact that Afghan political matters remain fraught after all these years no matter what the U.S. did or does. The sight of Captain Nelson riding on horseback into the face of Taliban missiles while bombs dropped by B-52s explode all around him is admittedly arresting, and it's impossible not to root for this good bunch of guys.

But in the end, the John Wayne film that 12 Strong most reminds one of is not Back to Bataan or Fort Apache or The Alamo, but The Green Berets, not for its filmmaking qualities — Danish commercials whiz Nicolai Fuglsig, directing his first feature, and fellow countryman cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek do a capable and vigorous job getting the action convincingly on the screen — but for its simplistic, one-dimensional politics and lack of of historical perspective. What's they've made is, from the American perspective, a feel-good movie about Afghanistan, something it took Jerry Bruckheimer to figure out how to do.

Production companies: Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media, Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, William Fichtner, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Ben O'Toole, Kenny Sheard, Austin Stowell, Austin Hebert, Jack Kesy, Kenneth Miller, Elsa Pataky, Rob Riggle, Taylor Sheridan, Fahim Fazli, Laith Nakli
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Screenwriters: Ted Tally, Peter Craig, based on the book
Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Andrew A. Kosove, Chad Oman, Mike Stenson, Ellen H. Schwartz, Garrett Grant, Yale Badik, Val Hill, Doug Stanton
Director of photography: Rasmus Videbaek
Production designer: Christopher Glass
Costume designer: Dan Lester
Editor: Lisa Lassek
Music: Lorne Balfe
Casting: John Papsidera

Rated R, 130 minutes

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