Film Review: 12 Strong

Latest War Movie Proves Hollywood Is Still Soldiering On

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
12 Strong
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Based on Doug Stanton’s nonfiction accounting of the first US military strike team sent into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, The Horse Soldiers recently changed its name to 12 Strong—all the better to comport with unspoken Hollywood dictates that all films about the military now contain the words “brave” or “strong.” By any other name, the film is a dutiful, occasionally pulse-pounding piece of wartime agitprop.

We start, expectedly enough, on the homefront. It’s September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been attacked by foreign terrorists. We see television news coverage through the eyes of various US Army Green Berets stationed in the American South. Front and center is Captain Mitch Nelson (loosely inspired by real-life “Horse Soldier” Mark Nutsch). Nelson (played in full-blown hero mode by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) has left the Special Forces team he trained behind and is now moving up the ranks of military brass. But in the wake of the shocking terrorist attacks, his current job pushing paper around an office doesn’t sit well with him. So he volunteers to lead his old squad into battle in Afghanistan. Proving himself both smart and tough, he’s given the go-ahead by his superiors.

Following a few scenes of standard-issue domestic drama (unhappy wives bidding their frequently absent husbands goodbye), Nelson and his team (Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults and Thad Luckinbill among them) are shipped out to Afghanistan (actually New Mexico, subbing nicely with the occasional assist of some CGI mountaintops). They’ve been tasked with retaking the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. In order to do that, Nelson’s 12-man squad must join up with and earn the respect of local warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Iranian actor Navid Negahban from “Homeland”). Dostum is a canny, cagey old warrior who has been fighting impossible battles in the area since the Soviet Era. Wary of the general’s help, Nelson nonetheless accompanies him and his ragtag army on various Taliban raids, calling in crucial American air strikes to assist. The team has been given six weeks to reach Mazar-i-Sharif, but Nelson is wise enough to know that the winter storms will hit Afghanistan in just three weeks, closing off all the mountain passes and effectively putting a stop to their mission. Nothing like a ticking clock to ratchet up the tension.

Danish director/photojournalist Nicolai Fuglsig—operating under the bombastic banner of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (
Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down)—lends some welcome grit to the film’s many battle scenes. Fuglsig covered the Kosovo War as a photographer and has a convincing eye for realistic action. Though the Americans are there mostly to call out bombing coordinates to high-altitude planes, they’re following a seemingly bloodthirsty warlord who dismisses the idea of order-following soldiers and exalts the concept of true “warriors” ready to die for a cause. Dostum immediately pegs Nelson as a desk-bound administrator, saying he—unlike the battle-hardened Green Berets under his command—lacks “killer eyes.” But once again, Captain Nelson proves his smarts and toughness on the battlefield. Time and again the American and Afghani forces have no choice but to ride in on their horses (the only reliable form of transport in the treacherous mountain passes) and engage Taliban soldiers in pitched firefights.

When sending camera drones drifting over various artfully exploding battlefields,
12 Strong is on solid ground—a sort of bullet-riddled modern update of countless old Hollywood Westerns. It’s a good thing, since the tightly focussed script rarely bothers with any other kind of drama. There’s no interpersonal conflict among the soldiers. Enough of them are handed a single character trait (Peña, for example, is the funny one) to distinguish the leads from the background extras. There’s no question about the importance or validity of their overall mission. (The evil Taliban chief they’re after wears black and glowers a lot, in case you can’t figure out who the bad guys are.) Even with the ginned-up “trust” issues between Nelson and Dostum, there’s little doubt about the stand-up-and-cheer outcome. A bit more drama and conflict (other than firefights) might have given the film some depth and complexity. But the sheer number of bullets and explosions make the trek from point A to point B exciting, nonetheless.

Though its simplistic black-hat/white-hat conflict is never in question,
12 Strong avoids the gung-ho jingoism of most flag-waving war films—from 1968’s The Green Berets to 1986’s Top Gun to 2012’s Act of Valor (an action movie/recruitment video starring actual, active-duty US Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen). Those inclined to see a movie about the unquestioned heroism of American soldiers (and cannily employing the word “strong”) will like this patriotic dustup just fine.

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