January 19, 2018
Given the heightened emotions around 9/11, a film that dares touch on the individual involved in America’s military response needs to treat the subject with delicacy and honor, eschewing patriotic sentimentality for the truest sense of duty. Such is the case with Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, the story of twelve Special Forces servicemen who requested deployment to Afghanistan in the first mission to take down the Taliban because it was their duty.
Inspired by the declassified story and based on the book by Doug Stanton, originally titled “Horse Soldiers,” 12 Strong recalls the mission dubbed Task Force Dagger wherein Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leads a dozen military men (with roles by Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes and others) to Afghanistan in an effort to disrupt and destabilize Al-Qaeda’s control of the Afghan region. Nelson’s team is tasked with earning the trust of local leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) whose men would protect and escort the team toward the city of Mazar-I-Sharif, believed to be a central component in Al-Qaeda’s grip on the region. With little time to prep, poor access to supplies, and difficulty determining friend from foe, Task Force Dagger seems doomed to fail before it begins.
There’s a lot of expectation built into a film like 12 Strong. For one, war films – whether the outcome is victory or forfeit – tend to sanctify the protagonists and vilify the antagonists. Any story narratively connected to September 11th is immediately hot button. You can’t touch that moment in history without some sense of reverence for those lost. Impressively, Fuglsig’s approach seems to be more third-party witness than stuck-in-the-middle participant.
Opening with news reports from 1993, 1998, and 2001, we’re given a historical record to detail the ongoing struggle between the United States and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist activities. Then, the key event on 9/11 is displayed through two different news reports as Nelson sees them – first at home, then at his office. It’s a bold choice, yet also a compassionate one. Since the audience is already familiar with the event, it’s Nelson’s reaction that’s new. The events of 12 Strong are largely understated and refrain from any sort of judgment on one side or another; a refreshing change from the bombastic approach most war films indulge in.
Another interesting choice made by Fuglsig is the focus on the story over the participants. With star power like Hemsworth and Shannon leading the team, there’s an expectation that the audience will get to dig in deep to who these people are, yet the characters arcs are limited to the mission and whether or not it succeeds. (Perhaps placing such well-known actors in prime roles is a means to cover for such little development.) Anything else the characters do is merely in service of that objective. With a runtime of 2-hours 10-minutes, audiences would be right to expect some long soul-searching or extended dramatic speeches, but the story dictates that time is valuable. The resulting cinematic experience is constantly on the move, though never feeling rushed.
That said, each of the actors give striking performances. Hemsworth is believable as Nelson, the leader of the task force whose brains and leadership are respected by his squad even if he lacks combat experience. Shannon, as Nelson’s number two, serves as the wise elder statesman of the unit, while Peña exudes the wry sense of humor we’re used to from his performances along with a depth and strength that’s new. The rest of the U.S.-based characters may be given less to do other than move the story forward, yet are all significant to the narrative. In this way, the other members of Task Force Dagger, their headquarters support from Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner) and Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle in a strong non-comedic turn), and their home lives all feel less superficial.
It’s especially important to note the representation of General Dostum and his nemesis Mullah Razzan, portrayed by Numan Acar. 12 Strong takes great pains to establish both of these men as not only true believers in their causes, but of similar righteousness to the Americans. Though Task Force Dagger arrives with aerial weapon capabilities that can rain great horrors upon Razzan’s Al-Qaeda forces, Dostum and Razzan serve to remind us of the human cost of war. It’s not just the lives our enemies take, but what we take from ourselves when we select to do harm. These philosophical moments neither drag the story nor distract; rather, they serve a larger, completely unexpected narrative purpose.
12 Strong isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, but what it does do well is surprising enough to make a solid impression. Hemsworth, Shannon, Peña, and the rest of the cast draw us in with their star power, making us care quickly about the characters right up until the moment the story reminds you that this is not some summer blockbuster. 12 Strong is a story of honor, duty, and patriotism that finds its footing by abandoning glory in favor of serving the story, much like the men of Task Force Dagger who took a chance with their lives to begin one of the longest modern wars in history.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5