‘12 Strong’ is the declassified story about a group of U.S. soliders who went into Afghanistan days after September 11, 2001.
Arriving ahead of the main U.S. Forces, the 12-man group fought alongside Afghan allies they could not trust covering vast, inhospitable ground against an enemy that outnumbered them and had the home ground advantage.
That sounds like a fascinating tale, and maybe you’ll find it in the book ‘Horse Soldiers’ of which this film was based because the film itself is far less riveting.
In some ways, the film seems confused about what it wants to be: an old-school war film with typical clichés or portraying the reality of what really happens and how that undermines such clichés.
Some of this is refreshing, some of this is depressing and some of this is too damn rote. But the film feels like a slog when it should be breaking into a gallop.
Case in point, most of the men have families who are openly passive-aggressive about them leaving to serve their country in the wake of 9/11. In contrast, the movie's star Chris Hemsworth plays Capt. Mitch Nelson the team leader with a young daughter and a wife who only demand he promise that he’s going to come home.
Played by Hemsworth’s real life wife Elsa Pataky, perhaps she’s nice to him because the rest of his team have families who have seen them go off to war before.
That rings true as does a scene where Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) convinces a senior officer to have Capt. Nelson lead the mission to Afghanistan because he’s a good leader, untested in combat, but good at what he does.
The rest of the film plays out the same way; some scenes surprise for example: a trusted and capable soldier pulls a disc in his back riding a horse rendering him less able to participate.
On the other hand a young boy starts befriending a U.S. soldier (Trevante Rhodes) setting off a countdown where harm will come to the young boy and the soldier trying to protect him.
In Afghanistan the Americans team with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) who keeps secrets and recklessly endangers his men but also displays courage and a larger understanding of the war.
Often, though, this leads to Negahban having to repeat a variation of the line: “You Americans know nothing about Afghanistan and you won’t stay here for long.”
A lot of care is taken to show maps, describe positions and orientate the audience about upcoming battles. The sound effects sound more akin to live rounds than the ones Hollywood usually use; most of the effects seem practical and convincing. There are even a couple of money shots.
A cavalry charge could’ve been shot more exciting, but the full power of giant Chinook helicopters in action is captured very well.
With a modest budget, director Nicolai Fuglsig (who worked as a photographer in the Kosovo war) makes his feature film debut and has delivered a competent, if not innovative action film.
Everybody involved has tried to honour the brave work of these soldiers, which is commendable as is the work of the Horse Soldiers.
But it’s disappointing not to declare this a great film, just a standard action flick.