In 12 Strong, writers Ted Tally and Peter Craig and director Nicolai Fuglsig tell the “declassified” story of a detachment of U.S. Army Special Forces deployed to Afghanistan in the days immediately following September 11, 2001. I put “declassified” in quotes because I seem to recall, reading at the time, of American soldiers riding to battle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on horseback, but the movie says the mission was classified until journalist Doug Stanton wrote about it in his book Horse Soldiers, so what do I know? If it’s in the movie, it must be true.
Anyhow, it’s an enjoyable old-fashioned war movie, albeit spruced up with the kind of graphic combat action that was once forbidden by the limits of film technology and the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code (at one point, unidentifiable body parts of some hapless Taliban soldier are blown right over our shoulder).
Leading the doughty band of twelve strong is Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), with support from the rank-unspecified Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sam Diller (Michael Peña). Nelson’s local ally among Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), and the two men bond in the time-honored band-of-brothers fashion of movies where soldiers from all walks of life come together and find common ground on the battlefield. (Interesting factoid: in real life, Dostum has spent a lifetime cannily guessing which side was going to come out on top in his country’s turbulent history, and joining that side in the nick of time; today he’s vice president of Afghanistan.)
Tally and Craig keep things straightforward and simple. Some might say “oversimplified,” and they might be right, but 12 Strong is telling a story, not expounding on the intricacies of post-9/11 geopolitics. The movie offers no hindsight on America’s war in the region, any more than Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered” reflected on the wisdom of Rome’s war with Pharnaces of Pontus. Our boys prevail against daunting odds, and if the movie ends before things get too complicated—well, that’s the way drama works.
Director Fuglsig is a bit of an unknown quantity; his only other director’s credit is last year’s Exfil, a picture so obscure that not even the IMDb knows very much about it; even its running time is a mystery. Here, he deploys his forces reasonably enough, and he never lets the microphone bob into the scene.
One of his forces—the movie’s not-so-secret weapon—is Chris Hemsworth, whose stature seems to grow with every movie he makes, even the Thor installments. If he ever looked like just another pretty face, those days are gone. He’s an actor of real substance, and as an action hero he could become a real superstar, a sort of 21st century Errol Flynn.
12 Strong never becomes as inspiring as it wants to be, but it’s an upbeat movie about a downbeat war. And as movies go, that’s not nothing.