“12 Strong” heroically looks back at a conflict that is still ongoing.
It unfolds in the weeks and months following 9/11, when a group of Special Forces soldiers, dubbed the ODA 595, attempted to take the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. They’re fighting the Taliban to ensure another 9/11-like terrorist attack doesn’t hit U.S. soil. They probably couldn’t imagine that 16-plus years later the fight would still be raging on.
Chris Hemsworth leads the soldiers as Mitch Nelson, a captain who literally and figuratively kicks over his desk job on the morning of 9/11. He’s ready for action. Nelson has never been in combat before, but argues his lack of experience in the field is a good thing, since American soldiers have never seen a war like the one on which they were about to embark. He shows no fear in the face of uncertainty and won’t let his fellow troops do so either.
“The only way home is winning,” he says, like it’s tattooed on his chiseled chest.
Joining Nelson are a team of soldiers including Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Pena) and Ben Milo (“Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes). A shaved-bald William Fichtner and comedian Rob Riggle, in a rare straight role, play a pair of U.S. Army officers who give the group its marching orders. They’re to land in the mountains of Afghanistan and team up with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), a leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance coalition, who will help lead them into battle. Because of the rocky, mountainous terrain (New Mexico is cast as Afghanistan), they’ll have to travel and fight on horseback, and no one is particularly thrilled about going into war in 2001 using pre-WWI methods.
“12 Strong” is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, who stages battle sequences like gameplay scenes in “Call of Duty.” Explosions rock in perfectly cinematic plumes of smoke and debris — Jerry Bruckheimer is a producer, natch — but the crossfire lacks coherence and becomes redundant. The characters get lost in all the back-and-forth and become interchangeable grunts, and the complicated relationship between Nelson and Dostum is under-explored. The screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on Doug Stanton’s 2009 book “Horse Soldiers,” paints in broad strokes, losing both the nuance of the war and the individuals who were fighting it. Its narrow focus aims strictly for a flag-waving, hoo-rah tale, but its telling doesn’t resonate as deeply as it could, or should.
Hemsworth, who is better when playing against type or when sending up his superhuman good looks, takes a step back here as a generic fighter and family man. Hemsworth has the look, but not the conviction of a soldier; his character is criticized for not having “killer eyes,” and the same can be said for the Aussie’s work here. The others — Shannon, Pena and Rhodes — don’t have enough to go on, and Negahban’s character suffers from a lack of backstory and exposition.
Late in the movie, Dostum explains the American soldiers’ precarious position in Afghanistan.
“You will be cowards if you leave, enemies if you stay,” he says.
In other words, it’s a lose-lose proposition. “12 Strong” does its best to tell a story of heroism from a dark chapter in our history, but its reality is much more complicated.
Rated R for war violence and language throughout
Running time: 130 minutes