Producer Jerry Bruckheimer thinks big, and his war movies can range from noisy idiocy (Pearl Harbor) to near brilliant (Black Hawk Down). Luckily, 12 Strong sees the value in substance as well as spectacle. Based on Doug Stanton’s 2009 bestseller, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rod to Victory in Afghanistan, this rough-hewn drama has a compelling, mostly untold story to relate. After 9/11, an elite Special Forces unit comprised of 12 Green Berets led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), were dropped into Afghanistan in response to the attack. Their mission impossible – codenamed: Task Force Dagger – was to link up with the Northern Alliance, headed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), to take on the Taliban and its Al Qaeda followers. He’s show the U.S. team where the enemy was located. Nelson’s group would then join in the battle on land and order bomb strikes from the air.
What seemed simple on paper was, of course, a whole other another thing reality-wise. The captain and his men knew nothing of the Afghan terrain – one dotted T-72 tanks and missile launchers – or had the experience of riding horses, which was the only way to maneuver on this unfamiliar landscape of sand and mountains. Not only did the Americans have to practice diplomacy by cementing a bond with the Northern Alliance, they had to learn to fight Afghan-style to survive. And that saddling up.
It’s a hell of a tale, and Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig, a former photojournalist and creator of award-winning TV commercials, had his work cut out for him. It had to look and feel real (the production shot in New Mexico), and the filmmaker certainly delivers. The action scenes pulsate with the hum of modern warfare. Credit Hemsworth for playing Nelson not as some Norse God out of Marvel fantasy (that’s his day job) but as a man of courage forced to improvise on his feet or die trying. The rest of the cast also perform beyond the call of escapist duty. Michael Shannon is outstanding as the Chief Warrant Officer, a fighter who has seen combat, unlike his captain. Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes – so good in the Oscar-winning Moonlight – also score as members of the team.
If you’re thinking these characters are drawn in conventional lines by screenwriters Peter Craig and Oscar winner Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs), you’re not wrong. The script doesn’t go much beyond the surface in establishing the camaraderie among these men who left their families to take on a battle still being fought. This is not a movie with time on its hands for character development or scrappy discussions of the politics involved on both sides. What 12 Strong does deliver, however, is a rousing tribute to the bravery of soldiers whose contributions went unheralded for years. That impact cannot be denied.