Review: ’12 Strong’ Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, And Michael Pena

While watching 12 Strong, the latest film depicting the ever-present war in Afghanistan, I thought about how much I miss completely fictional military movies. Everything nowadays is based on true events, or actual people who have been caught up in the quagmire of our “War on Terror”. They may be heroes, but often it is hard to separate the men from the dubious cause they fight for, which 17 years after 9/11 is most assuredly not just to stop terrorists.

12 Strong, with its horse-mounted soldiers galloping through Afghanistan’s dusty terrain like heavily-armed samurai warriors, would have been perfect for a breezy, Magnificent Seven-esque diversion. If you’re able to separate yourself from what the real-life men of ODA Alpha, aka Task Force Dagger, really represented then it’s still a highly entertaining action film that makes solid use of its remarkable cast. Most importantly to those just looking to see our brave fighting men kick terrorist ass, it doesn’t ask a lot of questions or really any questions at all. We were hit on 9/11 and America got some payback. Point, click, boom.

For me, it was tough to shake that Task Force Dagger were the first U.S. forces to retaliate in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and their story was tailor made to be turned into an action movie. But their lives aren’t a movie, for them it was real life, and men of Task Force Dagger couldn’t have known they were just the start of what would be a seemingly never-ending morass of blood and treasure. Chris Hemsworth sets down his mighty Thor hammer and picks up a rifle as Captain Mitch Nelson, based on real-life soldier Mark Nutsch whose story is chronicled in Doug Stanton’s book, “Horse Soldiers”. Mitch has opted to leave the battlefield and settle into a desk job so he can spend more time with his family, including a wife played by Hemsworth’s real-life spouse, Elsa Pataky. But all of that is thrown aside when the World Trade Center was hit on September 11th. Mitch barges back into HQ and demands to put together his old squad, who are literally sitting around waiting for someone to give them an order to shoot something. Permission granted, and Task Force Dagger is off to Afghanistan to be America’s first strike against the Taliban.

While the mission is about as cut and dried as can be, take the team and destroy Osama Bin Laden’s forces, the reality on the ground is where 12 Strong finds its hook. Dagger is charged with keeping the fragile Northern Alliance together by joining up with a local warlord who, at least at this moment, hates the Taliban more than he hates the United States. But he harbors no illusions about the future; today Osama Bin Laden is the enemy, but tomorrow it will be the very U.S. soldiers he fights alongside now. And fight alongside them he does, on horseback, through the harsh terrain, riding into battle against tanks and rocket launchers. Its sort of surreal, actually, and reminded me of those aforementioned samurai warriors charging into cannon fire in The Last Samurai. The difference is our heroes fared far better, with Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig skillfully capturing the battlefield tactics that helped Dagger survive the insurmountable odds. Having covered the Kosovo conflict as a war photojournalist, Fuglsig knows how the chaos of battle also makes for a breath-taking, striking image.

 Hemsworth, ironically playing as close a version of Captain America as he’s likely ever to, is exactly the actor a film this direct needs. He bulls ahead like the conquering hero, leading a strong group of supporting players that includes Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, and Trevante Rhodes. There isn’t  ton of characterization to go around (Shannon has “killer eyes”, that’s about the extent of it) which is typical for war ensembles, but each actor makes the most of their limited opportunities. Rhodes, whose physicality masked his vulnerability in Barry Jenkins’ award-winning Moonlight, shows a softer side again as his character befriends a local boy assigned to protect him. Yes, we get the scene of the soldier introducing the foreign kid to American candy. It. Happens. Every. War. Movie. At this point it’d be weird not to have it.

The script, co-written by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town), skims the surface of what our involvement in Afghanistan really means for a people that have been invaded over and over again throughout history. It could have used more of that, because it may have helped us figure out why this particular story needed to be told right now. There’s a statue honoring the Horse Soldiers at the World Trade Center site, but the film doesn’t do a good job of telling us why this event was important. Yes, Task Force Dagger drove Osama Bin Laden out of Kabul, an important early victory in the war. But it wasn’t decisive, and the fighting rages on long after Donald Rumsfeld exposed their efforts publicly a couple months later. That’s a sad fact 12 Strong never contends with. The only mission is to show the war in Afghanistan the way we imagine it to be, just good guys killing bad guys, like it used to be in war movies all the time before we started asking questions.

Rating: 3 out of 5