Review: 12 Strong

12 Strong
7 10

Based on the real-life account of the first American Soldiers to respond to the attacks on September 11th, 2001 (from the book "Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan" by Doug Stanton), 12 STRONG takes a fairly simple stride down war-film lane, which bypasses the gut-punch emotions or political message overtures that typically pervade the genre as it pertains to modern war. That can be viewed as either a good or bad thing, depending on what you're hoping to see when you step into the theater. It falls somewhere on the sidelines of exceptionally great war films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or BLACKHAWK DOWN, but again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. 12 STRONG is a well-made war film that harkens back to the more action-focused style of the genre. It never gets deep enough into the characters to form any significant connection, but is helped significantly by the actors, who give it more depth and engagement than the script allows. Ultimately, it falls in the middle-of-the-pack for the genre, but stands as a genuine effort to tell a real-life tale that never overreaches, even if it should have.

Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, an ODA (Special Forces/Green Beret) Team Leader who pushes to lead his team in the first response to Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Nelson, like everyone else on that day, is emotional and wants to bypass a staff assignment to get in the fight. He's helped by Michael Shannon's CW4 (Warrant Officer) Hal Spencer, who convinces their commander (Rob Riggle) to put them on the chopping block. Hemsworth rallies his team, including familiar faces like Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes and Geoff Stults (among others) promising them they're gonna "be in this fight". We get a very brief glimpse of Hemsworth, Shannon and Pena's home lives prior to deployment, which is a lot of the same emotional back-and-forth that's come before (and with good reason, as it's fairly typical in reality) with Hemsworth's Nelson promising his wife (played by real-life spouse Elsa Pataky) that he's coming home (which stands as his mantra throughout the film).

Once the boys are in-country things pick up speed and we are introduced to General Dostum (Navid Negahban), the leader of one sect of the Northern Alliance, which stands as the resistance to the Taliban in that region. Dostum is a complex character, having fought the Soviets and been involved in the power struggle in Afghanistan his entire life and you're never quite sure of where his allegiance may fall (unless you're a student of history and current events, of course). When the team sits down with Dostum for the first time, he makes a point of saying that Hemsworth's Nelson doesn't have "a killer's eyes" so he's hesitant to even deal with him, regardless of his leadership role. This comes into play later, but the payoff is a bit cheesy and it stands as an example of the kind of paint-by-numbers story execution that hinders 12 STRONG from rising above its Bruckheimered pedigree.

Once the might of American air power comes into play the explosions begin, as do the skirmishes, which are a bit of a conundrum; well-shot, well-acted and kind of...boring. Everything looks good, from the attention to detail on weapons, tactics, costumes, etc., but director Nicolai Fuglsig never taps into any particular style that makes you really feel these moments. We rarely slow down to feel the impact of anything, minus a few deaths on Dostum's side and a life-threatening injury to one of the main players on the ODA team. The action element is simply lacking in voice, which it really could've used to punctuate the events as they unfold, especially for those not so savvy on the reality of on-the-ground fighting. That's not to say that there aren't at least a few rousing or cool moments, but it all comes down to your emotional investment and how it's portrayed onscreen, both of which fall short.

Thankfully, 12 STRONG boasts a strong cast with Hemsworth carrying the weight of the leading man with relative ease; almost too much ease, really, as I think he's way more capable to handle some deeper material to dig into. Having Michael Shannon in your movie is always a bonus and Michael Pena is quickly joining those ranks as well. Trevante Rhodes is tasked with a kid sidekick that feels rather one-note and the supporting cast lend a believable and strong presence to the proceedings. Navid Negahban's Dostum gets the most depth of anyone as the strong-headed, war-weary soul that may or may not have Afghanistan's best interests in mind. Minus the shoe-horned in villain "Mullah Razzan" who gives us a CliffsNotes version of why to hate the Taliban (although still very accurate) we don't get much of a face to put on the enemy here (even with archival footage of Bin Laden in the opening), which could've helped the dynamics of the film.

While it doesn't come together to leave a lasting mark, you have to admire the earnestness of 12 STRONG, which seeks to tell a simple story very simply. Still, you have to wonder what a filmmaker like Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg would do with a story like this. As a combat Veteran, I'm always happy to see our stories being told, but not at the expense of both emotional and visual punch, let alone something to say. In the end, Dostum tells Nelson  "If you leave, you are cowards. If you stay, you are the enemy," which is both a perfect and perfectly ironic summation of our involvement there. From my perspective, that's on the money, but for those looking for some rampant deep dive into foreign policy, you'll need to look elsewhere. At the end of the day, Soldiers do what Soldiers do and what they see and feel on the ground is a very different world than what's reported on CNN or written in books years after the fact. 12 STRONG gets that basic aspect down, but a style overhaul and a deeper connection to these men would've helped to make it a war movie classic rather than a serviceable action tale.

Source: JoBlo.com



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