Cinematic Releases: 12 Strong (2018) - Reviewed

12 Strong (subtitled The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers), based on the 2009 nonfiction book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, is about a United States Special Forces unit that went into Afghanistan after 9/11 on a mission of retaliation against the Taliban. 

At the beginning of the film, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who had been reassigned to desk duty upon his own request, sees the attack on the World Trade Center and immediately wants back in on the action. His commanding officer, Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle), fights him on it at first, but eventually gives him back his unit. His twelve man team are then sent to Afghanistan on a mission to help a warlord, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), fight the Taliban and take over the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. 

12 Strong has a short setup, but that is all that is really necessary. The characters, on the other hand, could have used some backstory. Nelson, Chief Warrant Officer Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) are all briefly introduced before they head into battle. Each of them are shown in perfunctory scenes with their families to establish that they have a wife and kids they want to come back to. I guess it is supposed to give them a human dimension, but there is so little to these scenes. There is no clear sense of who these men really are and what they are fighting for on a personal level. That made it difficult to care about any of them as individuals. 

The movie’s strength lies in its action sequences. Director Nicolai Fuglsig and screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig do an excellent job of orienting viewers to the action. When Nelson and his men are preparing for combat, there is discussion of where they are, where they are trying to go, who they will be fighting and what they are trying to accomplish. This makes it easy to build tension because their plan has been effectively established. It also makes it much easier to keep track of where all the characters are which makes the action more exciting. 

Also helping in that regard is their mode of transportation. The soldiers are forced to ride on horseback, since that is the best way to get around on that terrain. Of course, only one of them has any real experience riding horses. Between that and the many shots of the unforgiving desert, it is clear that the soldiers are out of their element. To carry out their mission, they will need to overcome the unfamiliarity of their situation. It is never really touched on in the dialogue, but it adds some extra suspense to the proceedings. 

12 Strong is about the mission and the difficulties these men have to face as they try to accomplish it. It is not about its characters. The actors do their best, but they are mainly asked to play types. There is no room for nuance here. The only character with any depth to him is Dostum, the Taliban hating warlord. This makes him the best character in the film, by far. Negahban plays him as a sometimes selfish man, with pride for himself and love for the men who follow him. He needs the Americans, but does not really trust them. His relationship with Nelson becomes pretty interesting and adds some much needed intrigue to a story whose outcome feels inevitable even if you are not familiar with the story (which I was not). 

12 Strong exists to celebrate the first US soldiers to enter into Afghanistan and fight the Taliban after 9/11. And it certainly does that. It does not look back at 9/11 or forward at what has happened since then. It is only about what these men did on this mission. The characters are thin and the overall story is pretty unimportant. That being said, the action is pretty good and their mission is compelling even while being told in such a straightforward way. That is all 12 Strong is trying to do and it does it effectively enough. 

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-Ben Pivoz