12 Strong, based on the non-fiction book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, recounts what happened in the weeks following the September 11th attacks and how an extraordinarily unconventional plan with high chance of failing, defied odds and is now revered as Al-Qaeda’s worst defeat.
The film opens with a montage of the days, months, and years leading up to the attack including interviews with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, as well as video from an earlier 1993 attack on the Towers. Not entirely necessary, because everyone knows why America went to Afghanistan, but it served to introduce this event that no one heard of. Rather than spending a chunk of time introducing each of the main characters, we’re given a quick sneak peek into the lives of some key characters & their gut-wrenching yet brief goodbyes.
The film jumps right into introducing us to Task Force Dagger, a special unit team dropped northern Afghanistan under the shroud of night. This motley crew is led by none other than Capt. Mitch Nelson, (Chris Hemsworth), who before this day had no field experience. This lack of experience is noted by their unlikely alliance leader General Abdul Rashid Dostrum (Navid Negahban), whose reputation for brutality was that of legend. Dostrum uses every opportunity to test his relationship with Nelson, most notably by insisting they travel and attack on horseback. While unconventional, they managed to fight the Taliban and their tanks with 2000 Afghan men on horseback. The mission to drive the Taliban out of Mizar-i-Sharif, a stronghold, was projected to take a year, but Nelson and his men managed it in a little under three weeks.
The high points of this film are all the scenes that feature Navid Negahban. His portrayal of General Dostrum is what will keep you watching. He serves as a mentor to Hemsworth’s Capt. Nelson; yet is never truly given the respect he so richly deserves. Every line is delivered with such heart, that it commands your attention. He asks of you to differentiate between and You do not want to miss a single line he speaks.
The movie could easily be called Dostrum & Nelson, because despite appearances of Michael Shannon (Pearl Harbor, Man of Steel), Michael Peña (Ant-Man), and Trevonte Rhodes (Moonlight), and the many other actors that make up Operational Detachment Alpha 595, they are relegated to background characters. Peña serves as the movies comic relief and his quips are often overshadowed by the bloody battles that frequently take place. He’s a serious actor, yet hasn’t been allowed to be anything other than the “class clown” since 2004’s Crash.
The movie takes some Hollywood liberties and does away with 1000 other militia men that partook in the plan, and includes dramatic injuries that never happened to further the movie’s agenda and grab at your heart strings long enough to keep your attention. According to the real green berets, on whom the film is based, their only real injuries were from riding on the horses, which does not translate well into box office gold. The film gives you a generic villain (Said Taghmaoui) whose cruelty is basic enough to make you hate him. It’s shot in the mountains of New Mexico, which are just gritty enough to give the look of the terrain the soldiers were faced with. Hemsworth’s character buries a piece of the Twin Towers in the sands of Mazir-i-Sharif, to remind us why they were fighting.
The names of all the characters are changed for unspecified reasons, and the movie plays exactly how you would expect. America comes in with bombs, levels a city where there were both enemy and civilian casualties, which of course you never hear about. Then when the dust settles, despite help from other citizens, we take full credit for the success. This is not specific to war films; Superhero flicks are guilty of this as well. In Marvel’s Avengers Age of Ultron, the entire fictional town of Sokovia was destroyed, and yet our heroes received a job well done. This is why these movies are so successful, Americans love to see a win, whether the exact events differ or not. It’s also why Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s comedy Team America: World Police about American foreign policy will always be hilariously true
It’s a story many are not familiar with and the men involved are getting the recognition they so rightly deserve, including General Dostrum and his men. Many of which were not as lucky to survive the ordeal. If you can get past Hemsworth’s attempt at an American accent, and enjoy gratuitous battle scenes and seeming endless bloodshed, it’s a mildly enjoyable film. The movie is about patriotic triumph; it won’t dwell on the 16-year aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom. You are meant to leave the theatre shouting, “America!” Or you’ll leave feeling like you’ve attended a 2-hour lecture for a class you’re required to take.
12 Strong opens in theaters January 19. It is Rated-R. Runtime is 2h 10min.