In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, an American Special Forces team is inserted into the mountains of Northern Afghanistan to help the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban. Embedded with Afghani tribal warriors who have been fighting all and sundry for generations, can Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his team (including Michaels Shannon and Pena) earn the respect of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and his hardened guerrilla fighters?
Based on the non-fiction book Horse Soldiers by noted journalist and war historian Doug Stanton, 12 Strong is nominally a true story. But, as the much-missed Lionel Hutz once wisely intoned, there’s “the truth” and “the truth”, and what has arrived on the screen is a vastly simplified account, dumbed down narratively, thematically, and politically.
It’s staunchly patriotic to such degree that charges of propaganda are not unwarranted, with the first 20 minutes packed with “man’s gotta do” “once more unto the breach” platitudes. On the one hand, this might very well be accurate; we are, after all, dealing with an elite American military unit, true believers to a man, going into the field in the wake of the most notorious terrorist attack in history. On the other, if screenwriters Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (Blood Father, The Town) were going to alter events for dramatic purpose in any case, they perhaps could have done something about the dialogue – we don’t need our onscreen protagonists to communicate solely in macho clichés even if their real life counterparts (possibly) do.
Things pick up once our boys get on the ground and are haring around on horseback with Dostum’s army, lighting up Taliban hotspots for aerial bombardment and indulging in the occasional cavalry charge. All other considerations aside, Chris Hemsworth on horseback charging machine guns with nothing but an M4 and a can-do attitude is one of those images that the film medium is made for. Debut director Nicolai Fuglsig frames the action competently if somewhat generically, all suspended atmospheric particles, quick cuts, and carefully deployed moments of slow motion, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement as mounted soldiers gallop through gunfire while explosions fill the air with smoke and scattered earth, bringing bloody retribution to the evil Taliban.
And boy, are they evil in this film (and in real life, let us not forget). Never mind starting the proceedings on September 11, 2001 – 12 Strong feels the need to underline the vileness of its villains by staging a scene wherein a Taliban commander (Numan Accar) executes a village woman for daring to educate her daughters. It’s a horrific and troubling scene, effective in its way, but tonally it’s at odds with the rest of the film which is, despite being couched in recent history, pretty much a straight up military adventure.
It feels patronising, and it’s not the only element of the film to do so – we frequently cut back to a couple of officers (William Fichtner and Rob Riggle) back at the American command centre, who provide a kind of military-flavoured Greek Chorus for any audience members who are struggling to get their head around the action of the plot. The Byzantine tribal politics are vastly simplified to an almost offensive degree, with the driven but prideful Dostum – who in real life went on to become Afghanistan’s Vice-President – having to be taught by his new American allies how to cooperate with his political rivals for the greater good. All complexity is stripped away, leaving a narrative where a group of men go from one place to another to blow things up, occasionally troubled by armed resistance that they swiftly obliterate to general acclaim.
Still, taken at face value, 12 Strong is entertaining enough, as long as you don’t ever expect it to step outside its exceedingly specific remit. Any given viewer’s reaction is going to depend very much on whether we’re at a far enough remove from the actual events depicted for them to serve as action movie fodder. If the answer is yes, a meat and potatoes good time is on the cards. If no, then 12 Strong is a singularly frustrating experience that takes a complicated historical milieu and reduces it to a series of jingoistic money shots.