Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña
There’s a tale told by an American serviceman from the Vietnam War, about how John Wayne was booed from the stage while visiting “in country” (Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle). The star had just stepped on stage after a screening of The Green Berets, and the group of fighting men took umbrage at how the film didn’t reflect the genuine reality of the war – and decided to express this. Although I’m sure Chris Hemsworth would not receive the same treatment, 12 Strong, a story about modern day “Green Berets” (or the 5th Special Forces Group as they are now referred to) is a curious reminder of how much has changed, and how much has remained the same.
Inspired by Doug Stanton non-fiction book Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong tells the story of the first Special Operations team inserted into Afghanistan after 9/11. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his men of the ODA 595, are dropped into hostile territory to meet up with and fight alongside of the Northern Alliance, to capture the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban. What they find is a fractious alliance of warlords reliant on horses to remain mobile. However as they come to understand the rebel leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban), they begin to understand something of the conflict they are involved in, and what they must do to complete their mission.
Now there’s no doubt that 12 Strong is propaganda, placing the rallying cry of 9/11 right at it’s start, and having almost every character sprout ideological diatribes on a fairly regular basis. It significantly underplays the protracted nature of the war and the aftermath, as well as simplifying some nuanced historical characters (especially Abdul Rashid Dostum). However if you can get past this (and I know that’s a big ask), then there is a well made film here, with a sterling cast, and genuinely thrilling action. That cast manages to find much of the gallows humour and pathos in the cultural shock the unprepared troops face when being thrown into Afghanistan, and trying to adapt to the rather complex realities on the ground. Mostly this is the fractured and tenuous bond that the Northern Alliance has formed, the general lack of trust of outsiders, as well as the harsh conditions and limited resources. All of which gives a sense of the large learning curve that must be faced before any hope of mutual co-operation in facing a common foe, can be achieved.
It is in the battle sequences that 12 Strong, really finds its footing. These are solidly staged, giving a real sense of the battlefield, troop placement and tactics, rather than just the rapidly cut together shots of “dudes with guns”, that so many action films fall back on. As such, it grants a more immersive experience, letting audiences feel the bullets impact close by them, with legitimate stakes being played out for us to witness. So when you do get the almost inconceivable event of a cavalry charge, against tanks….well, you’re along for the ride.
Having the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, and Michael Peña in the cast certainly doesn’t hurt. Shannon is probably the stand-out here, even in a paired back supporting role, he grabs your attention, but Hemsworth and Peña are charismatic enough that you’re invested in the characters fate. Hemsworth still hasn’t topped his Marvel Nordic god, but he brings the right combination of intelligence and grit to Captain Nelson, to make him intriguing.
A movie that’s at its best while in the heat of battle, 12 Strong is certainly capable of sounding the charge.