12 Strong | Nicolai Fuglsig | January 19, 2018
It seems like each January brings us another post-9/11 war film, just ripe enough to be given the Hollywood treatment. This January, we get 12 Strong, based off of journalist Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers, which details the heroic actions of the Task Force Dagger Special Forces group in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig and written by the team of Ted Tally and Peter Craig, 12 Strong opens with Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) watching the events of 9/11 unfold on TV. He instantly springs to action, hoping to bring his team back together to bring the war right to those responsible. His team includes Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Peña), and Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).
Their task is to try and work coincide with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Afghan Northern Alliance to break down their language barrier and find a way to work together in order to take down their shared enemy: the Taliban. Even working together, they are completely outnumbered against the Taliban, but they must first find a way to trust one another before they can take down the real threat.
It doesn’t take an expert on the genre to sense that this is a film that you’ve already seen before. Tall and Craig don’t throw any surprises in the script; aside from Captain Nelson, Spencer and General Dostum, unfortunately, none of the other soldiers that you spend nearly 130-minutes with are fleshed out. While Fuglsig doesn’t direct with a noticeable style or flair, he lets the natural uplifting spirit of such a story do all of the work and it’s enough to keep one invested in the story, regardless of the disappointingly shallow characterization of our heroes, who are limited to cliched soldier talk and are only a few given brief scenes saying goodbye to their loved ones before they depart.
To its credit, 12 Strong doesn’t go too far in on its “rah-rah” American jingoism. The footage of the World Trade Center collapsing is enough to put you on the side of the American soldiers and it doesn’t go all Michael Bay on us and remind us of how great America is. We get a few lines about how they’re ready to bring the war to the people who wrecked havoc on American soil, but aside from that, it’s pretty evenly keeled.
Being a Jerry Bruckheimer production of a war film, you know you’re getting a ton of huge explosions and big-time action sequences captured by cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk. These are all finely captured, and the action sequences certainly do their job and offer a tense atmosphere. Going in without previous knowledge about the previously classified mission will only enhance the viewing experience as the film doesn’t tip its hap one way or another about the potential fates of the squad.
It pains me to see how underdeveloped the rest of the squad is, as one of the strongest parts of the film is the development of the relationship between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. At first, their cultural and ideological barrier doesn’t allow them to see eye to eye, but after enough time spent fighting alongside one another, the two find a mutual respect. Hemsworth and Negahban both sell the parts well and have a sincere bit of chemistry that works. Aside from them, only Shannon and Peña are given enough to work with to sort-of stand out, which limits the emotional connection to the group to only surface level.
12 Strong is an adequate post-9/11 war film that does a fine job portraying a story that deserves to be told and, more importantly, heard. Yet I can’t feel that it’s a missed opportunity to honor the heroics of all the brave soldiers who deserve a much sharper telling of their astonishing story.