This fact-based war film from producer Jerry Bruckheimer is a slick and muscular production. But like so many muscles in Hollywood, it all feels rather fake: steroidal and pumped up rather than legitimately hard-won.
The story of the first special forces team to be deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11, if 12 Strong doesn’t exactly rewrite history, it certainly misleads by selective omission. Chris Hemsworth stars as the inexperienced captain of an elite team of soldiers who are choppered into Taliban-held territory to make contact with a warlord. Their mission is to call in airstrikes; but due to the terrain, the Americans find themselves fighting on horseback like the Afghan warriors they battle alongside.
The competent action sequences borrow the cinematic language of the western as well as the war movie – these are heavily armed cowboys, whooping their way into the fray, dodging missiles rather than arrows. Their triumph is America’s triumph. But large chunks of audience memory loss are required for it to be viewed as such.
If you thought Hollywood couldn’t make the ongoing war in Afghanistan look like The Magnificent Seven, then you don’t know Hollywood. Nicolai Fuglsig’s film, 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers, was inspired by a real life Green Berets operation in Afghanistan in the days when ‘post-9/11’ was a newly minted phrase.
But it could just as easily be a rework of a forgotten and entirely uncomplicated oater, replete with lazy genre soundbites (“I’d like to tell you it gets easier but…” and, “You’re no warrior, you’re just another warlord”), unfailingly brave soldiers on horseback, and black hats. Or at least black pakols.
In one memorable scene, three little girls are questioned by the Taliban. When it’s discovered they know their multiplication tables and how to spell the word giraffe, their mother is executed in front of them.
Mostly, the movie concerns the crack US team who are parachuted behind enemy lines so that, in tandem with a local Northern Army led by General Dostum (Navid Negahban), they might claw back the Taliban-occupied city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
‘The mighty Thor’
If wars are won by brawn, it’s no contest. The unit is headed by the mighty Thor, Chris Hemsworth, with macho movie veterans Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes in tow. “You don’t have killer eyes”, the Afghan general tells Hemsworth; one half expects him to start calling him Captain Dreamboat.
The material is painfully familiar (soldiers leaning over a fallen comrade shouting “Don’t you quit on us”). The tech specs are adequate. The likeable ensemble are largely wasted. The mawkish happy ending is extremely disingenuous.
Afghanistan, we’re told more than once, is the “graveyard of many empires.” The director made his name as a front-line combat photographer, yet here, he shows surprisingly little curiosity about realpolitik.
12 Strong may be more palatable than the sickening gung-ho patriotism of 13 Hours or American Sniper. But ultimately, it feels as pointless and unnecessarily long as the conflict that inspired it.
The theme of the Western hero riding in to save the day is so potent a symbol that it has long outlived its frontier-era trappings. Directors such as Brian De Palma in “The Untouchables” (1987) knew that merely placing a character on a horse gave the rider a justice figure status.
Hence, he found the Eliot Ness crew firing at the Capone gang from a running board on a 1920s roadster wanting in the heroic myth department, and instead mounted them on horses to charge the criminals. Even Batman was used in this manner, when, to establish order in the aftermath of a nuclear hit on Gotham, he charged the criminals on a white steed.
This imagery comes ready-made in “12 Strong,” a new film detailing a recently declassified Special Forces insertion into Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The twelve-man Green Beret unit tasked with taking a Taliban stronghold truly were “horse soldiers” (the title of the book about them), necessitated by Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.
Even without the horses, these figures were heroic, for the crew fought its way into an area they knew nothing about (Green Berets are traditionally trained for jungle warfare) and saved the day for those tortured and executed by the Taliban, such as a female schoolteacher murdered for the “infidel crime” of educating young girls. The crew, headed by an excellent Chris Hemsworth, who doesn’t need Thor’s hammer to be heroic, are patriotic, but that patriotism is of a vengeful quality. Hemsworth’s Green Beret commander, who is waiting out his active-duty service at a desk, is so angered by 9/11 he all but begs to be put back into harness.
This revenge-filled anger holds the unit together and makes them all the more plausible even when World War II clichés such as a solder returning to the unit so his mates would not “have all the fun” occur. Given the bond between the crew, however, it might have even been said. Clichés can sometimes be sincere.
Real Depictions of the Horrors of War
Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig catches the surreal nature of the conflict, in which Hemsworth and crew sport the latest weaponry on horseback while flanked by bomb-dropping helicopters. Fuglsig, who worked as a photojournalist covering the Kosovo War, knows how to put the audience front-and-center within the battles. With Dolby-powered explosions that practically leap off the screen, Fuglsig creates a sense of viewers being “on the ground” that harks back to the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”
There are no cinematic clichés regarding the violence. Characters are not conveniently shot only in the arm. Body parts fly throughout the movie. The normally glamorous Hemsworth looks like he’s lived on a horse in the highly stressful atmosphere of close combat. Hemsworth’s crew have dark circles under their eyes and thousand-yard stares. It’s not just the stress of combat that gives them wrinkles, but a Vietnam-like atmosphere of not knowing who to trust in a country where they don’t know the language.
The unit’s gung-ho nature is matched by the cynicism of the Afghan military leader who assists Hemsworth, a compelling Navid Negahban. He tells the eager-to-fight group that in Afghanistan “there are no right choices.” Negahban is old enough to have seen “empires” come and go in Afghanistan, and chillingly tells Hemsworth that Afghanistan is the “graveyard” of foreign armies.
A Refreshing Honesty about Non-Christian Theocrats
Despite this, the overall tone of the movie is refreshingly patriotic and not fearful of appearing politically incorrect. Politically correct Hollywood has largely avoided assigning villainy to Muslim terrorists because they are “people of color.” The most glaring example of this reticence was the Ben Affleck vehicle “The Sum of All Fears” (2002), in which the filmmakers carefully avoided offending Middle Easterners by dredging up that old ideological chestnut, the Nazis as the villains.
No doubt the politically correct will be outraged that the film depicts Muslim terrorists as kill-happy theocrats, but none of this goes against the historical record. History is frequently ignored or airbrushed out in a Hollywood all too willing to condemn the religious right in America but not theocrats who kill American soldiers overseas.
“12 Strong” is a welcome change from the “we’re all to blame” war movies that leftists in Hollywood crank out. Open-minded viewers will come away impressed and hugely sympathetic with how twelve Americans expelled Taliban soldiers from a stronghold where the latter practiced rape and murder on those not wishing to obey a blood-soaked theocracy. These Green Berets were the first Americans on the ground in a country that took on and beat the gargantuan Soviet army decades before. That they achieved their mission in spite of learning on the job is all the more impressive.