This solidly made, well-acted tale of the often-unheralded first group of US special forces in Afghanistan after 9/11 avoids jingoism to convey a story that’s both emotional and exciting, with some truly impressive battle scenes of US troops riding horses to fight Taliban tanks.
My mother lost her father shortly after her birth, when he was killed in the Battle of Normandy during WWII. My father is a retired VA physician who devoted his career to prescribing prosthetics and the physical therapy regimen for wounded soldiers. So I’ve never found any glamour in war and rarely watch movies about war, as they too often seem like jingoistic propaganda from the political right or like anti-American hate-mongering from the political left.
But the new movie 12 Strong, which recounts the story of the first dozen US special forces soldiers to enter Afghanistan after 9/11, is a surprisingly solid film that tells its tale from a fresh and little-known angle.
Shining A Light on Oft-Overlooked Heroes
The movie exposes the Taliban and Al-Qaeda by remembering various terrorist events with short snap shots and documentary footage ending with the attack on the World Trade Center. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is home with his little daughter, Maddie, and his wife. Maddie points to the TV showing the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and although Mitch is on leave, he springs into action reassembling his 12-man Special Forces team to go to Afghanistan and attack Al-Qaeda and wipe out the Taliban.
Yet he meets resistance from his superiors, who feel he isn’t the right man for this particular job after his long stretch away from home. The movie then cuts to long sequences of leave-taking by several members of the 12-man team as well as Mitch doing everything in his power to convince his superiors that he should take command and go to Afghanistan.
When he gets to the American base in Uzbekistan, he must compete with several other captains to see who’s going to be sent to try to take the city where the Taliban is headquartered, Mazar-i-Sharif. Although Mitch hasn’t had personal fighting experience, his knowledge of the history of the weather gives him the edge and he’s sent to join up with a warlord named General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to go with him to take the Taliban headquarters.
Horse-driven Heroics Make for Remarkable Visuals
Mitch’s superior thinks he can get there in six weeks, but because of the winter and the mountains, Mitch believes he only has three weeks. To make it worse, his 12-man team find that Dostum will only give six horses to accompany them—stirring tensions as they wonder if the Afghans are just testing them, or trying to have them killed.
But when Mitch has to get close to the enemy to spot the bombs being dropped from B-52 planes at 30,000 feet, Dostum is impressed and the two teams finally work together in a series of suspenseful and exciting showdowns that eventually escalate into an incredible battle of horses versus Taliban tanks.
The battles featuring horses against massive artillery are fascinating to watch, and director Nikolai Fuglsig does an especially impressive job considering that 12 Strong is his feature-filmmaking debut. He expertly draws out the tension in numerous sequences throughout, finding fresh twists on what could have easily been ho-hum battle scenes, while also eliciting strong performances from his cast.
Great Performances Without Great Amount of Bloodshed
Negahban does a sterling job as Dostum, lending the film complexity with his portrayal of a Muslim warlord who is humane, intelligent and on the right side of how to treat humanity. Hemsworth digs deep, showing an impressive gravitas that helps remind that he’s an actor with far greater range than the histrionic heroics that he engages in while playing his best-known character, the Marvel superhero Thor.
The film conveys plenty of war violence without getting too bloody or graphic, but for those offended by foul language, it features about 50 F-words and 30 uses of other foul language and uses of God’s name in vain, including quite a few GDs. But for adults, it’s a solid and enlightening movie.
Perhaps the unsung hero in all this is its screenwriter Ted Tally, who mastered finding the heart amid tales of slow-burning menace in his Oscar-winning script for “The Silence of the Lambs” and its sequel, “Red Dragon.” While 12 Strong occasionally meanders and it feels like it’s coming out a few years too late to achieve maximum effectiveness, he displays those same skills here in a movie that finds a near-perfect balance between the horrors of war and the humanity of the forces who fight it.