Movie Review: 12 Strong

Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña in a story of 9/11 payback.

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12 Strong
Warner Bros.

The visual hook for 12 Strong, a first feature by onetime war-zone photojournalist Nicolai Fuglsig, is a poster photo of a group of soldiers—clearly modern in their desert-camo fatigues, complicated assault rifles at the ready—mounted on horses and loping our way as a big Chinook battle chopper rises out of a cloud of dust behind them. The equine anachronism is mildly arresting—what fresh Wild West could this be? But we quickly find out—it's actually Wild Middle East—and then settle in for what turns out to be a well-made, old-fashioned war movie with an appealing cast and, as you'd hope from any movie in which the name Bruckheimer crops up in the credits, a buttload of head-snapping, blood-spurting, building-flattening action. In other words, there's a lot to like here! Unfortunately, it's not quite enough.

Our "horse soldiers" (the title of the true-story Doug Stanton book on which the movie is based) are a team of 12 Special Forces veterans who've volunteered, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to strike the first counterpunch against the loathsome Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates, currently infesting the rubbly wastes of Afghanistan. The movie has no interest in sifting through the politics of this period (thank you Lord); nor is it much concerned with more than four of the team's members: strikingly godlike Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth); his right-hand man, a warrant officer named Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon—exactly the kind of grim-eyed guy anyone would want to seek revenge with); and two combat-seasoned sergeants, Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes, of Moonlight).

The movie laughs in the face of cliché. After a compact history of jihadi attacks on American lives and property, from the first assault on New York's World Trade Center in 1993 to the second one eight years later, we meet the soldiers as they prepare to depart for battle. It's a melancholy business, of course, although Nelson's wife (played by Elsa Pataky, Hemsworth's actual wife) is totally stiff-upper-lip about it. ("I'm a soldier's wife," she says, "and I've been lucky.") Other spouses aren't so sanguine.

Once assembled, the team is informed by a bald-headed, baggy-eyed colonel named Mulholland (a disconcertingly corpselike William Fichtner) that they're headed for Uzbekistan, from which they'll be infiltrated into neighboring Afghanistan. Their mission: to hook up with a General Dostum (Navid Negahban), one of the many fractious warlords of the country's rebellious Northern Alliance, then proceed with him to the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif and assist him in destroying it, or at least them. Since the craggy Afghan landscape rules out modern transport, their journey will be undertaken on horses and donkeys—no problem for Nelson, who grew up on a ranch or something, but a major pain for the rest of the team. Nevertheless, off they go.

From this point, the movie devolves into a meditation on various ways to drop a jihadi. Rifle fire works well whenever the wily buggers step out from concealment behind the country's abundant supply of rockpiles; but calling in air support to deliver death-from-above is more efficient, and, frankly, more gratifying. Over the course of two hours and 10 minutes, we see a lot of bad-guy turbans retired, bullets taking them out in the modern cinematic manner, with attendant gushes of blood.

There are possibly way too many of these firefights—they do begin to grow tedious. But the movie sustains Why We Fight momentum with jolts of atrocity: a passing glimpse of a video in which a pregnant woman is being stoned to death, and a scene in which a village schoolteacher who attempted to educate little girls is shot in the head in front of her students by a Koran-waving Taliban fanatic (the movie's default villain throughout, played by black-bearded Numan Acar, who'd be a shoo-in for the role of evil vizier in any future remake of The Thief of Baghdad).

The picture has some notable virtues. Thanks to the chemistry of the lead actors, we get a rich sense of trash-talking military camaraderie. And there are interesting practical details: No saluting in field encampments, for example—it slaps a target on officers for any snipers who might be watching. Also, when you find yourself riding a horse along a high ridge, never look down into the gaping chasm—the horse'll take your body-weight shift as a signal to make a turn (into thin air). Good to know!

Despite the movie's high level of craft (especially in its soundtrack, which expertly mixes the clatter of battle with a deep moan of massed brass) and its general likability, it's inevitably unsatisfying. Although its subject would seem to have built-in excitement—a righteous-minded assault on the 9/11 malefactors sheltering in Afghanistan—it's deflatingly open-ended. If only the attack could have been an in-and-out operation—now that would have been satisfying. But no—after 16-plus years, we're still there.

NEXT: Judge Issues Temporary Order Blocking DOD Transfer of U.S. Citizen to Foreign Custody

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  1. I was a supply clerk on a carrier. The one difference from civilian life which is impossible to explain to civilians is that you can’t quite (except by punching an officer in the face) and they can’t fire you; once stationed some place, you’re there for two years or whatever, everybody knows that, and everybody gets along pretty much. I don’t know how it compares to combat zone camaraderie, but it’s nothing you find in even the best civilian jobs or friendships. Some of the worst social problems I’ve had at jobs stem from being lulled into thinking I could do and say things which would have been fine in the Navy. Nothing to do with political correctness either.

    So I will probably rent this, just to see if it does bring back those memories. Besides, nothing wrong with seeing a few bad guys blown to bits.

    1. I suspect that if one overlooks torturing innocents, wrecking countless civilian and innocent lives (including by attacking the wrong country), unleashing substandard mercenaries, funding and aligning with disgusting and corrupt people and organizations, the result (yet another vague draw with ragtag irregulars despite enormous resource advantage), the physical and moral casualties on all sides, the enormous financial waste, and the like, our counterproductive misadventures in those countries could be seen as a source of great entertainment.

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  2. Bushmaster assault rifles at the ready

    No.

    1. Right; more likely Colt or FN.

    2. This was my first reaction as well, and that reaction carried me through the rest of the article, all the way into the comments. I know it’s a minor thing, but going out of ones way to be so specifically wrong, in this case, serves only to let me know how qualified (or not) the author is speak to the realism of the movie.

      1. Not minor if it’s wrong. Some quick photo research suggested to me the weapon Hemsworth is holding in the poster shot is a Bushmaster. If it’s not, would be happy to know what it is…

        1. Probably a Colt M4, which is pretty much the military version of the same gun.

          Easy mistake to make, they look almost identical, especially from a distance. The main difference being that the M4, being a military rifle, can fire fully automatic while the Bushmaster can only fire on semi-auto.

          Also, this being a Hollywood movie, it’s entirely possible that it really was a Bushmaster and not an M4.

          1. Good to know, thanks for the correction…

            1. The thing to remember is that Colt, FN (the military’s main contractors, as QUT noted above), Bushie, S&W, Daniel Defense, Noveske (civvie producers), etc., all manufacture versions of the gun for various markets, but the gun is the same: AR-15. Hollywood uses them as props interchangeably, but “in-universe” I can’t imagine an operator ever using a Bushie unless the only alternatives were a rusty side-by-side, a wheel-lock, or a slingshot.

          2. Just as the actors are not real special ops soldiers; but for the sake of entertainment, we pretend they are. Ditto for “Bushmaster” posing as an M4.

          3. Well, the M4A1 can (which is almost certainly what SF would be using). Most regular M4s are 3-round-burst limited IIRC.

            The real difference, though, is that unlike Colt/FN M4s, Bushies don’t exactly have a great reputation for prioritizing QC over “affordability”.

    3. No one but a semanticist gives a fuck about the brand or caliber of the guns used.

      1. No one but a semanticist gives a fuck about the city or regional names of the countries used.

        No one but a semanticist gives a fuck about the anachronistic year of manufacture or 4WD capability of the cars used.

        No one but a semanticist gives a fuck about the attitudes or quotes attributed to the historical figures used.

        FTFY. Because the person corpse-fucking the 4 day old thread to criticize other commenters has so much better things to be doing with their life.

  3. we see a lot of bad-guy turbans retired

    This is the sort of writing I would praise you for if I were the kind of person that praises people for things.

    1. in the books, i think there were only 2-3 reported firefights. almost everyone they killed (outside of the very crazy Qala i Jangi battle) was via airstrike.

      i knew there would be a movie as soon as the book came out. spec ops on horseback is just too ridiculously hollywood.

      but the real story was that “dudes in fleeces and w/ garmin GPS told a fleet of B52s flying out of diego garcia where to drop bombs”

      meaning, they carved a path right through armies using air power. the fact they were embedded w/ horse riding Northern Alliance was incidental. they could have walked.

      1. notable in the books: there was some mention of what the taliban in the north had done to the Hazaras

        it wasn’t pretty. It was one of many atrocities which the press played down after Rwanda because, well, it was hard to report on, and besides, if you reported on all of them, it made Clinton sad.

      2. that would have been a shithouse movie though.

  4. Interesting – we defeated the Taliban with a few dozen special forces alongside the Northern Alliance, with a few smart bombs tossed in for good measure. And then we decide to occupy the country with thousands of men and women, and drop $1 trillion+ (aka: Make It Rain). I think the solution is fairly clear – – withdraw everything and everybody, but leave a few dozen special forces there and a few smart bombs, if you really have to. That is one “shit hole” country we are not going to be able to buy out of the Stone Age.

    1. When Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan, he ended up with an arrow in the lung, and he had to marry a Pathan princess in order to extricate himself without getting his army bogged down forever. Is The Donald willing to go that distance?

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  5. I read the “horse soldiers” book when it came out. I also read “First In” (Gary Shroen) “Jawbreaker” (Gary Burnsten)

    (both “gary’s” figure in the story reported in Horse Soldiers – they were the CIA figures – field officer and mission director, respectively – that planned and ran the thing)

    …both of which seemed far more ‘accurate’ (there’s a high degree of self congratulatory bullshit in any of this genre), and less sensational than the Horse Soldiers book. The former was written in a style that seemed designed for “TV movie”. I remember laughing out loud at passages in Horse Soldiers, like it was some sort of daytime-tv soap opera.

    the reason books about this period (September 2001-early 2002) are interesting is twofold: the CIA was basically told, “you can run your own war”, which it had never done before. (spare me bay of pigs references – they had air support) …which only lasted 6 months. And it mostly “worked”. They demolished the taliban on a shoestring.

    Then Rummy grabbed the reins and sent in conventional forces and we’ve been there for 17 more years.

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  9. Anybody got a shortlist of movies about this ongoing conflict that are worth watching?

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