FILM REVIEW – 12 STRONG. With Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Navid Negahban. Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. Rated R for war violence and language throughout. 130 minutes.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the push was on to strike back quickly and severely against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, their protectors in Afghanistan. 12 STRONG follows the Army special forces team that went in only a month later with the mission of supporting the “Northern Alliance” and liberating a Taliban stronghold.
The problems were many, starting with the fact that there was no such “Alliance” and the rival warlords hated each other as much as they hated the Taliban. Further, the Afghan terrain was treacherous, and the Americans were backing a faction fighting on horseback and were outnumbered by forces armed with tanks and missiles. And just to make it more complicated, winter was only weeks away and even the Russians – one of many groups that had invaded Afghanistan and failed – found the snow made fighting impossible.
Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is sent in with 11 men under his command to work with General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who declares that Nelson lacks “killer eyes.” Part of the story is how Nelson and Dostum come to trust one another as they proceed against all odds. War films like this touch on the male bonding, the gallows humor, and the violence of war, and all of that is crucial to the genre. But this kind of film works best when we get a sense of why they’re proceeding as they do, and what the reasons are for their tactics.
Nelson points out that while Dostum and his men control the ground, the Americans control the air. Nelson has the ability to call in airstrikes, which is a major advantage. Dostum counters that Nelson and his men may be brave fighters, but they want to survive. They are facing an enemy that embraces death believing they will be rewarded in the world to come. As they proceed, the Americans have to adapt to the conditions of a country that has been the downfall of more than one empire.
Hemsworth and Negahban are the human core of the film, but we also get to know some of the other Americans, including Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña). Beyond that, we get a lesson in the challenges of fighting in Afghanistan where there is only one route to the city they need to capture, and it goes through another town where the Taliban has an endless supply line. To win that battle, they need to figure out how to cut off those supplies.
The war in Afghanistan is still ongoing more than sixteen years later, and is sometimes called “The Forgotten War.” The key fight depicted here was classified for a number of years and the Americans who came home from it returned with no fanfare. In the spirit of “now, the story can be told,” this film adaptation of Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers is a fitting tribute to the men who went in first and succeeded against all odds. “12 Strong” is less a celebration of American military might than of the tenacity of the men who responded to the horrors of 9/11 by answering their country’s call.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.