Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Navid Negahban, Numan Acar, Trevante Rhodes, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Austin Stowell, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austin Hebert, Ben O’Toole, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Jack Kesy, Elsa Pataky, Arshia Mandavi.
A very different dirty dozen for the war on terror?
In the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks on the US, a small force of twelve Green Berets (all volunteers) were dropped into Afghanistan in a military mission that remained classified for over a decade. 12 Strong is based on the non-fiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of US Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan, written by Doug Stanton. The screenplay has been written by Ted Tally (Oscar winner for The Silence Of The Lambs) and Peter Craig (the tough Boston set crime drama The Town, etc).
The elite fighting force was to link up with a local powerful war lord named General Dostum (played by Navid Negahban) and work with the Northern Alliance to break the stranglehold of the Taliban. However, the alliance was mainly a motley band of rival warlords who were too busy fighting amongst themselves. The soldiers were led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a desk bound officer who had no combat experience but had a great understanding of military tactics and history, which would come in handy in this inhospitable region that was “the graveyard of empires”. The soldiers were often unsure of how far they could trust their Afghan comrades. Communications in this remote region were also often very spotty.
Working with the ragtag bands of local armies, the US soldiers took the fight to Taliban strongholds, one fortress at a time. They had to make an arduous journey overland through mountain passes, aware that they could be ambushed at any time. They succeeded in liberating Mazar-i-Sharif, a key Taliban held city in just three weeks when most military experts thought it would take up to two years. They would often charge into heavily armed camps on horseback, facing overwhelming number and superior fire power. They would call in air support and the air force would drop bombs on the camps.
The leader of the Taliban forces here is Mullah Razzan (played by Numan Acar, recently seen in In The Fade, etc) who is depicted as a ruthless, hardline religious zealot. When we first meet him, he is executing a female school teacher for trying to educate young girls in a village.
12 Strong is a very visceral action film that takes us into the chaos and confusion of a war zone. This is a typical big budget production from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, full of the usual and fury and lack of subtlety that are an integral part of most of the films from his stable. But it also effectively immerses you into the heat of battle.
The director is Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig (the little seen 2017 sci-fi film Exfil), who hails from a background in commercials, and his handling of the material is muscular and unflinching, and oozes testosterone. The action sequences are well staged. He cannot completely avoid the obvious jingoism of the script, and the patriotism often strikes a jarring note in an otherwise rousing action film. The battle scenes are quite tough, but somehow 12 Strong is pretty much a straight forward action film. It is not in the same league as other two other recent stories drawn from the war on terror such as Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, or American Sniper, etc).
The film looks good too. Danish cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek captures the harsh beauty of the bleak, inhospitable landscapes of New Mexico, which doubles for the mountainous terrain and unforgiving desert wastelands of Afghanistan.
Hemsworth has a strong presence here as the heroic Nelson, who grows in confidence with every encounter, and who eventually manages to eventually unite the various tribes under the leadership of Dostum. He brings a sense of swagger and credible physicality to the role. The film also explores the prickly relationship between him and the wiser veteran Dostum, which eventually warms to a mutual respect. Negahban (best known for his role in Homeland, etc) is good as the wily Dostum.
Hemsworth gains solid support from Michael Shannon (underused as Nelson’s experienced Warrant Officer Hal Spencer), Michael Pena, who brings unexpected touches of humour to his role as Sam Diller, Trevante Rhodes (from the Oscar winning Moonlight, etc), and a largely unknown cast who play the remainder of the team, although many of the characters are underdeveloped, making it hard to empathise with them. There is also a strong if cliched human interest angle in the relationship that develops between weapons officer Ben Milo (Rhodes) and the young Afghan teen who is charged with protecting him.
Despite the success of these twelve soldiers on their mission impossible, the film closes with a prophetic warning from Dostum suggesting that this is still a war that the Americans are unlikely to win.