12 Strong devolves a very real story into a professional wrestling spectacle.
For a post-9/11 action film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, 12 Strong shows a surprising amount of restraint. Based on the book Horse Soldiers, about the elite force of Green Berets who entered Afghanistan in the days following September 11th, 12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth as Mitch Nelson, the captain of the unit sent on the mission. On the morning of the attacks, Mitch is on leave with his family, excited to start a new desk position that will allow him to be more active in his daughter’s life. But when the towers come down, he wants back in the field, as does every other member of his crew. Full of fire and fury, Mitch, Sam Diller (Michael Peña), Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and nine other soldiers are tasked with aiding a Northern Alliance faction run by General Dostum (Navid Negahban) in his quest to take down the Taliban. They’re to assist his guerilla campaign with air support and targeted smart-bomb raids in the hopes of taking an al-Qaeda stronghold, effectively ending the war on terror before it’s begun.
As one could tell from this simplistic, nearly heist-movie-esque premise, this is an unabashed, flag-waving chest-thumper of a war picture. But despite all its jingoistic bravado and Roger Corman-paced explosions, it’s not quite the blunt-force instrument of military recruitment Michael Bay or Peter Berg might have made it. In the hands of war photographer turned director Nicolai Fuglsig, here making his feature debut, the dust-and-blood canvas of the desert is an opportunity to temper summer blockbuster thrills with convincing touches of sobering reality. He stages the action to foster equal measures of excitement and dread. For all his stylistic attempts at docudrama honesty, however, this film sidesteps the ham-fisted politicizing of every other prestige picture polemic in recent years.
At times, with this decision to forge a sanitized historical account purposefully removed from greater context and the potential for thornier observations, it’s almost refreshing to find a movie that knows its limitations and does its best within those narrow bounds. In between the noisier set pieces where the men see real combat, there are smaller sequences that work on suspense. As straightforward as the basics of their mission are, the complexity of Middle East relations and the knives-at-your-back predicament in which Task Force Dagger finds themselves provides a framework for something subtler than the whizz-bang sturm und drang of the action scenes.
But where a more geopolitically shrewd scribe might populate these cool-down moments with philosophical ruminations on the United States’ place in this conflict, screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig instead tell a burgeoning tale of bromance between Mitch and Dostum. Initially, Dostum doesn’t trust or respect Mitch, who’s never seen real action before, never killed a man. He doesn’t have the “killer eyes” Michael Shannon’s Spencer possesses (but who really does?). As the mission progresses, however, the two men grow closer, bonding over semi-poetic musings on the warrior’s heart and other Western mythology, tough-guy bullshit that movies like this are founded on instead of substantive explorations of the masculine psyche.
While the action is stirring and the script lacking, it’s the film’s core cast that makes this worthy viewing. Hemsworth seems miscast at first, his particular brand of broad hunkiness ill-equipped to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these more interesting character actors, but that ends up working to his favor. Mitch is supposed to be something of an outsider, whose boundless optimism and confidence make him nearly superheroic as a leader of men. The film may have felt more authentic with, say, Mark Wahlberg, but it would have been the lesser for his presence. Peña is a shock as Diller, if only because much of what one would expect to be the comic-relief role he typically inhabits is awkwardly shifted to Ben Milo, played by Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, who honestly deserved more to do than a half-written subplot with a teen Afghan soldier. Peña shows new dimensions to his onscreen persona as the most likable everyman of the group, a former history teacher turned soldier who reminds the audience that every combatant starts out as a regular-ass citizen.
But really, this is Shannon’s picture, as all pictures in which he appears tend to be. In the role as Mitch’s confidante Spencer, the kind of straight-man role usually filled by someone like William Fichtner (who shows here alongside Rob Riggle, for some reason, as a general), Shannon imbues his barely-there character with so much pathos, seeming to be improving his hard-nosed dialogue off the top of his head instead of having to work from this unimaginative script.
12 Strong is an admirable viewing experience for highlighting a little-known true story of some American heroes who never got their due, but it’s a little frustrating for a film this ensconced in the long-form narrative of US involvement in the Middle East to absolve itself of looking any further past the surface than absolutely necessary. There’s a comically overt moment in the middle act where the audience is shown the closest thing this movie has to an individual antagonist. We watch as one of the Taliban leaders puts a bullet in a young woman’s head for teaching little girls math, which is basically Bond-villain shorthand for Islamic extremism. Outside of that and background footage of the towers coming down, the movie makes no effort to engage with the intricacies of the conflict, totally content to make the terrorists little more than faceless video-game fodder.
It’s surprising, in a way, that 9/11 was long enough ago to be so easily abstracted into the kind of white hat/black hat binary we usually reserve for WWII on the big screen. 12 Strong devolves a very real story into a professional wrestling spectacle with clear babyfaces and heels, never once pondering the murky gray area between those shifting alignments. But given the choice between a film like this, which knows its place, and one that may have aimed for transcendence and failed miserably, it’s hard to argue against the one with a gun-toting Michael Shannon on a horse.