If you’re doing your job right in the U.S. Special Forces, it likely means no one will ever know. It’s a tough, elite and highly classified position, where acts of incredible heroism never get the ticker tape parade, and that’s kind of the point. These soldiers are supposed to slip into and out of secret missions without making the evening news. “12 Strong” tells just one of those extraordinary stories, fought in the mountains of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001.
The film is based on Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers,” which describes one of the ways a special forces team adapted to the rugged landscape of Afghanistan – on horseback, like the Afghani warriors with whom they embedded – while battling the Taliban in the shadow of 9/11.
Directed by Danish photojournalist Nicolai Fuglsig, with a brisk, efficient script by “Silence of the Lambs” screenwriter Ted Tally and “The Town” screenwriter Peter Craig, “12 Strong” unfolds as a procedural, taking protocol and bureaucracy swiftly in stride. The men simply execute the mission. They don’t ask too many questions, and they train their minds on personal vendettas and the reasons they have to go home.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Mitch Nelson, a highly trained new captain who’s never seen war. He impresses the higher-ups enough to send his team, Task Force Dagger, to embed with the Afghani General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who’s been fighting the Taliban as part of the Northern Alliance. The task is to call in airstrikes on the Taliban, while fighting through an unforgiving territory. Nelson promises he can do it in three weeks with 12 men, which would require an enormous amount of trust, goodwill and generosity on the part of Dostum.
The two make an interesting and eventually inseparable pair. Dostum, who started fighting the Russians at age 16, is the aging lion, who declares the young upstart Nelson doesn’t have “killer’s eyes.” The fundamental difference between the two men? Nelson’s men are fighting for what they have on earth, fearful of death, while Dostum’s people fight for their rewards in heaven, willing to embrace death, because their situation on earth is pretty hellish as is.
Fuglsig brings an eye for systems and detail to the film, but this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production after all, and he never skimps on the bombastic pyrotechnics. The blistering firefights are increasingly brutal to the point of numbness. “12 Strong,” which is sometimes a profound philosophical and existential examination of what it means to fight for something, is also a ferociously action-packed war film. The details of the who, where and what often get lost and muddled in the thundering explosions.
While it focuses on the personal reasons to go to war, it doesn’t truly interrogate the larger ones. We’re given motivation to hate the Taliban with that tired screenwriting trope, a perfunctory scene of violence against women, which is to justify the airstrikes the Americans call in again and again. The only sly political commentary are a few cracks about how short they expect the war to be, and a few warnings about nations who have come before.
It never delves deep enough to examine the larger involvement of the U.S. and those ramifications, but “12 Strong” manages to infuse heart and character into this adrenaline-fueled war film, exploring how and why men fight.
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