As long as people continue to go to war with one another, we will continue to see war movies. After all, stories are built on conflict — the greater the threat, the greater the stakes — and the battlefield contains extreme, escalating conflict. Of course, because of their ubiquity, there is a certain necessity to somehow stand out from the crowd, and deliver something that audiences don’t typically see. This isn’t ultimately the greatest strength of director Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, which takes audiences back to the Middle Eastern conflict following September 11th. However, the film does have a seriously impressive story to tell that is supported by a rock-solid ensemble and wonderfully intense photography.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the aforementioned fateful day, 12 Strong begins with Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) learning about events at the World Trade Center on his home television in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, but before we can even learn his wife’s name, he’s back at work. While his active service in Special Forces is meant to be over, the attacks by the Taliban inspire him to stand and fight rather than ride a desk. His team’s Chief Warrant Officer, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), convinces their Colonel (Rob Riggle) to put Nelson and his men back in action, and within hours the unit (Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Jack Kesy, Austin Stowell, Austin Hebert, Kenny Sheard, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller) finds itself shipping off to Afghanistan.
With a harsh winter approaching in a matter of weeks, the mission drawn out is straight-forward: the Taliban has occupied the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and the Special Forces will drive them out. The only way to accomplish this assignment, though, is with the assistance of the Afghani people — specifically the Northern Alliance military front led by the notoriously stern and strict General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban). Riding on horseback through the desert, Nelson’s unit and Dostum’s followers cooperate and use their combined resources and terrain knowledge to take the fight to their shared enemy and score the first victory in what would develop as the War In Afghanistan.
The film is based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, and while there ultimately isn’t anything in it that elevates it to the level of “Great” from a stylistic or narrative perspective, 12 Strong is successfully compelling and reveals details of a heroic and teamwork-driven endeavor that most Americans probably don’t know about. The 12 soldiers of the title faced unique conditions in their quest for immediate retaliation after September 11th, certainly the most notable being their mode of transportation, but what’s easiest to appreciate is the movie’s focus on cooperation. Many war films about America’s modern Middle Eastern conflicts fall into the trap of painting a nation vs. nation/ideology vs. ideology backdrop, but 12 Strong clearly demonstrates the incredible importance that Afghanistan soldiers had in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Looking at the actors names mentioned above you’ll notice that the cast is stacked with some big time players — and the movie thankfully employs them well, even as the ensemble regularly finds itself split into groups over the course of the story. As you might expect, some of the Special Forces soldiers get a lot more screentime than others, but the positive spin is that it effectively utilizes the best of them, even while showcasing some well-worn clichés. We’ve seen soldiers bonding with young kids in-country countless times in other war films, but Trevante Rhodes still manages to sell it. There’s always that one guy who cracks the jokes to break the tension, but Michael Pena is straight-up a great casting choice for that part.
Naturally, Chris Hemsworth and Navid Negahban are 12 Strong‘s true leads, and thankfully they deliver the best turns of the group. In the case of Hemsworth, his recent track record has amplified his comedic talents, but he successfully reminds us here that he can sell serious drama just as well. And while he’s obviously nowhere near as big a name, Negahban portrays Dostum with a fantastic enigmatic complexity that both earns an air of respect and keeps you guessing what he’s going to do next.
Stylistically, the movie has its moments in its quiet scenes, but first time director Nicolai Fuglsig really shows what he can do when the action is at its hottest. The Danish filmmaker got his start as a photojournalist and earned attention for his coverage of the Kosovo War — and that experience-aided eye is clearly on display in 12 Strong. There are many airstrikes depicted throughout the movie, and the resulting explosions are so big you actually question how safe they were to shoot. The very realistic environments seem to only further enhance the performances, and with everyone at full intensity, it really brings you to war with its battle sequences.
12 Strong isn’t a film that we will be heavily reflecting on when we get closer to the end of the year and look back at both the best and worst that 2018 had to offer — but it is a surprise as a January release. It knows it has an interesting story to tell with a unique perspective, and it tells it well with a collection of talented actors and some legitimately gripping action. Furthermore, it pays great respect to heroes who should and will go down in the annals of history.