Movie review: The little-known story in ‘12 Strong’ is an excellent study of contemporary war
It’s early morning on Sept. 11, 2001. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) has recently come home after a training mission in Kuwait. He’s hanging out with his family when live footage of the World Trade Center attack comes on a TV in the background. The scene switches to a short while later, and a group of soldiers in the midst of a rural training mission on American soil. They’re wondering why jet fighters are flying so low. Could it be part of a drill? That answer has already been shown in the first scene.
Captain Nelson had just been heading up the training of an elite team of Green Berets, but that group of men was disbanded when the exercises were completed. He’s been reassigned to a period of desk duty, all part of the job. But now that the world has suddenly changed, he wants back in, and he wants the same team. The catch: Though he was out in the field, he has no actual combat experience, and his commanding officer won’t give him the assignment.
Based on the once classified true events chronicled in the 2009 book “Horse Soldiers,” the film gives a look at the problems and disruption of being part of a military family, and what that can do to the spouses and kids of the men and women who are sent off to do battle. Then it tells what happened next.
On Oct. 16, Captain Nelson and his team, among them Chief Warrant Officer Hal; Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena) are indeed back together, in a plane heading to Afghanistan, one of many teams to make that flight.
They were told that Osama Bin Laden is the brains of the problem there, but the Taliban are the muscle. Their mission was to get up close and friendly with one of the local warlords — a powerful man named General Dostum (Navid Negahban) would be that contact — and under his guidance, make their way to Taliban-infested Mazar-e Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan. Once they were close enough to get exact coordinates, they would call in for air strikes on the city.
Another catch: Only one of those Special Forces teams, consisting of 12 men, would be sent in. That was Captain Nelson’s team, all of whom were gung-ho to do it, even though they were aware that there would be no backup, no help for them if they got in trouble.
In a story filled with catches, the next significant one was that Captain Nelson and his Americans didn’t completely trust General Dostum and his Afghanis, and the feeling on Dostum’s side was mutual. The Americans knew they were fish out of water; Dostum’s main problem was that Captain Nelson didn’t have “killer eyes.” Their shared mistrust becomes one of the film’s motifs, and adds to the already constant tension. You have to wonder if that mistrust will ever have a chance of turning to mutual respect.
But there are many other things going on. The Taliban are presented as vicious thugs who have no second thoughts about killing their own people. The American forces are told that because of the terrain, the only way for them to get deep enough into Afghanistan is by horseback. Unfortunately, the only one of them with any riding experience is Captain Nelson.
For the most part, the film has more walking and talking and riding than action, until very realistic violence does break out in all of its horror. At one point there’s an amazing firefight in the mountains and on the ground, on foot, on horseback, and in tanks. At another, there are spectacular visuals from above of explosions down below. Close to the end, it all turns into a genuine war is hell scenario.
For those fans wondering about Chris Hemsworth’s capabilities beyond playing Thor, let it be said that he gives a strong and sturdy performance here, with no wisecracking. So, yes, he proves that he can also handle a leading role as a mere mortal.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig; directed by Nicolai Fuglsig
With Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Navid Negahban