Chris Hemsworth leads a charge of US special forces soldiers into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
Dir: Nicolai Fuglsig. US. 2018. 130mins
A solid cast (Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña) and some striking visuals aren’t enough to fortify 12 Strong, a run-of-the-mill war movie which touts themes of valour and brotherhood in only the most familiar of ways. Based on a true story but lacking the electricity or perspective that might give this 17 year-old tale any biting relevance, Nicolai Fuglsig’s feature debut examines how a dozen US Special Forces soldiers entered Afghanistan shortly after al-Qaeda attacked America, becoming the first troops to launch a risky counter-strike against the terrorist organization.
The film’s selling point is less its story than its handful of arresting images
Hemsworth, Shannon and Peña bring expert square-jawed gravitas to their roles, but 12 Strong feels oddly minor for such a major military offensive. Opening January 19 in the US through Warner Bros and a week later in the UK (via Entertainment), this film might draw comparisons with other recent true-life war dramas such as 13 Hours ($69m worldwide), although there might be less interest in this little-known story. 12 Strong will test Hemsworth’s commercial muscle away from his signature role as Thor while producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s name may also draw attention
Based on journalist Doug Stanton’s 2009 book Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong stars Hemsworth as Mitch, the leader of a Special Forces team who had accepted a desk job right before the 9/11 terror attacks. Horrified at the carnage and determined to strike revenge, he talks his way into bringing a handful of men, including Hal Spencer (Shannon) and Sam Diller (Peña), into Afghanistan to hit back at those who struck America.
This war movie’s central novelty — aside from the fact that the Special Forces unit was badly outnumbered — is that the soldiers would need to ride horses to traverse Afghanistan’s treacherous mountain terrain, eventually having to face off with enemy forces armed with tanks. This development only amplifies 12 Strong’s underdog spirit, but Fuglsig (a commercial director and photojournalist) fails to find the proper tenor for the proceedings.
12 Strong wants to be triumphant but also mournful, rousing but also thoughtful in its chronicling of America’s place in a changing, complicated world. That tonal nuance is commendable — trying to satisfy war-movie fans but also investigating the foolishness of the US’s policy to rush into the Middle East after 9/11 — but the results are more muddled than thematically intricate.
The problems extend to the depiction of this classified, fraught mission. An end-credits crawl makes the case for this operation’s historical significance, but the film is populated by underwritten, sometimes heavily clichéd characters. In 12 Strong, if a soldier is befriended by an adorable local Afghan boy who initially annoys him, it’s a good bet that, by the third act, a tragic event will make that soldier realise how much the kid has come to mean to him. Harrowing near-death scenes occur, as does the unspooling of predictably emotional backstories. But neither the Special Forces’ operation nor the individual soldiers’ makeup is that compelling.
Hemsworth and the rest of the cast do what they can to inject some humanity and grit. An underrated dramatic actor, he refuses to play Mitch as a simplistic war hero — rather, he’s a soft-spoken, concerned father and husband who wants to help his country, vowing that none of his men will be killed during this mission. There’s a potential richness in a character who can’t sit on the sidelines but only starts to realise how byzantine the political climate is in Afghanistan, but Hemsworth doesn’t have the space to really explore Mitch’s psychology.
Shannon and Peña are equally hemmed in by Ted Tally and Peter Craig’s screenplay, although Navid Negahban is at least given some dignity and spark as an Afghan general who is initially distrustful of these American soldiers.
But the film’s selling point is less its story than its handful of arresting images. Although shot entirely in New Mexico, 12 Strong convincingly enough feels like the Middle East, and cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek captures the thrilling juxtaposition of men on horseback battling enemies in thunderous tanks. Fuglsig bracingly fashions some of these war scenes as if they were Western shootouts with the cavalry riding into town.
Production companies: Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Torridon Films
International sales: Lionsgate, www.lionsgate.com
Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Chad Oman, Mike Stenson, Ellen H. Schwartz, Garrett Grant, Yale Badik, Val Hill, Doug Stanton
Screenplay: Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton
Cinematography: Rasmus Videbaek
Production design: Christopher Glass
Editor: Lisa Lassek
Music: Lorne Balfe
Main Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, William Fichtner, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill