12 STRONG. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. 130 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).
In an alternative universe, there’s a version of ’12 Strong’ that was directed by Peter Berg and starred Mark Wahlberg. From its “ripped from the headlines” true story basis to its focus on hypermasculine heroism, its similarity to the pair’s recent projects, namely ‘Lone Survivor’, ‘Deepwater Horizon’ and ‘Patriots Day’, is startling. It’s also solidly constructed, reasonably thrilling and decently acted, though it too has a particularly pro-US view of the world that may rankle some viewers.
Just over a month after 9/11, looking to destabilise the Taliban control over Afghanistan and take the fight to Al Qaeda, the US Army embedded 12 Special Forces soldiers within the militia of a North Afghan warlord. In a little over three weeks, these men overcame insurmountable odds to achieve their directive, helping General Abdul Rashid Dostum liberate the key Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. To this day, the film states, Al Qaeda considers this to be their greatest defeat.
The screenplay, adapted by Ted Tally and Peter Craig from Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book, ‘Horse Soldiers’, skilfully highlights what’s most unique about this astounding assignment. They note that the team’s leader, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, stoic) had never been in combat before being selected to go behind enemy lines in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Much is made of the soldiers’ previous inexperience with horses, when their new ally, General Dostum (Navid Negahban) presents them with mounts as their only hope to navigate the treacherous terrain and their best friends in a firefight. The men’s conversations return again and again to the notion that they have the chance to ‘see one through’, an oddity given how fragmented most combat experiences are. Politics aside (the film wisely ignores the thornier questions of America’s actions post-9/11), these men saw their specific mission through to the bloody end, earning the monument dedicated to them that now resides at the site of the World Trade Center.
That’s not to pretend that everything here is ground-breaking. You can almost tick off the military tropes as they gallop past – an assortment of teary farewells to their families, men bonding through good-natured ribbing and working out, a soldier forms a friendship with a local boy. The battles can get a little disorienting, though the sound and production designs do a decent job of keeping the action straight, with cleverly deployed sound effects and clearly stratified battlefields. That said, the threat to these men always feels unnervingly real, accentuated by their positioning up on lofty saddles when facing down Taliban tanks and hordes brandishing AK-47s. Also, though the ensemble works well to sell the “men on a mission” side of things, no one really rises above corny lines like ‘We are the test flight’ (though perhaps this is not the genre for award-winning turns or naturalistic dialogue). Even the desaturated visuals, though slick, feel pulled straight from the ‘desert warfare movie’ playbook.
Thankfully, it’s more nuanced in its approach to the Afghani people. Yes, the Taliban are depicted in no uncertain terms as evil [their figurehead in the film, Razzan (Numan Acar), is introduced murdering a woman for teaching girls over the age of eight], but it doesn’t anchor their villainy in their faith. For instance, General Dostum is both a Muslim and the local face of heroism in the film (somewhat problematic considering recent claims about the current Vice President of Afghanistan, though that doesn’t play into this narrative). There are good and bad Muslims in the film, as is the case within any faith in real life.
You’d think that director Nicolai Fuglsig, coming to his debut feature film by way of photography and advertising, should know how to craft memorable iconography. Luckily, his noble stunt steeds are happy to oblige. Whether it’s a fallen, dust-covered horse snapping to its feet next to Chris Hemsworth in full, gun-firing action mode, or a lone charger galloping through a flaming battlefield, there are enough “wow” moments to give it a visual pop between the more standard warfare-y bits.
If you’ve ever wanted to see Thor galloping through a battlefield toward a tank, while one-handedly spraying bullets at swathes of enemies, then ’12 Strong’ sounds almost custom-made for your tastes. It exudes Stars-and-Stripes-waving patriotism, but if you can focus on the film as an ode to its heroes, who answered their country’s call above and beyond, then it’s a decently made, thrilling tribute.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 8.