In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was that rare sense across not just America but the globe that there was a common enemy in the Taliban. According to fairly recently declassified documents, the first U.S. troops to set foot in Afghanistan to take on the Taliban were a team of 12 Special Forces soldiers whose job it was to trek across miles of desert, work with local Afghan warlords (who also hated the Taliban), and cut off the enemy at a specific location in the hopes of dealing a mighty blow against the enemy. (To this day, the Taliban considers this effort its greatest single defeat).
Based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton and adapted by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, 12 Strong tells the story of these men, working under a trusted but largely untested captain.
Unlike so many other films we get yearly about war in the Middle East, 12 Strong seems hellbent on maintaining a level of authenticity and not making its subjects into superheroes. Which is ironic considering that the untested captain in question, Mitch Nelson, is played by an Avenger. Chris Hemsworth is best known as Thor in three solo films and two Avengers movies.
As the film opens, Nelson is just settling in from having retired from the military, a decision that rubbed many of his team members the wrong way. As the smoke is still pouring out of the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Nelson asks his former commanding officer (a believable serious turn from Rob Riggle, a former Marine in real life) if he can return. With a bit of prodding from Michael Shannon’s Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer, Nelson gets his job back and the mission-specific training begins.
Some of the 12 team members get more on-screen play than others, but each of them is given the chance to not only prove their bravery but their humanity as well. 12 Strong isn’t only about the U.S. military barging into a country and blowing shit up (although that certainly factors into this story). We get to see Nelson and his people exercise their diplomatic skills as well. Nelson has never been in combat, so he’s learning on the job and struggling to read between the lines with his Afghan warlord host, General Dostum (Navid Negahban from “Homeland”), who becomes as much a teacher and spiritual adviser as he does a military strategist navigating through the unwelcoming terrain of Afghanistan.
Early on, the team has to abandon their traditional vehicles for horses in order to get through the brutal desert and mountain landscape. Familiar faces among the Horse Soldiers include Michael Peña, Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, and Taylor Sheridan (an actor best known in recent years as the screenwriter of such works as Hell or High Water, Sicario, and Wind River, which he also directed). William Fichtner is also on hand as the commander of the entire Afghan operation, and I won’t lie, his shaved-bald head was a constant distraction.
Lest you think 12 Strong is mostly about diplomacy and riding horses, the film also delivers the thunder to such a degree that the seats in the theater where I saw the film last week were practically vibrating my skin off, and it wasn’t wired to do so. Danish-born director and former photojournalist Nicolai Fuglsig does a remarkable job managing his action in terms of gun fire, explosions, and other forms of hellfire, but he also keeps us situated geographically in each of four or five battleground scenarios. You would think this would be key to establishing any sense of tension during the fight sequences, but so few filmmakers get it right.
Although you might already know, I’m not going to spoil any details about who lives or dies during the course of the film. But I can say that every single soldier, both the Americans and the Afghan troops accompanying them to the Taliban stronghold, take a massive beating during every phase of this remarkably short campaign (most of the film takes place within a few short weeks, so as to avoid the brutal Afghan winter, when the military thought the journey would take six months to a year).
Hemsworth, Shannon and Peña are the standouts among the cast, with Shannon’s steely gaze taking the prize for the most threatening weapon on the battlefield. He rarely takes on such an aggressively physical role (and no, playing General Zod in Man of Steel doesn’t count), but his professionally icy delivery works well here, perhaps even better than the more obvious “villain” part he has in The Shape of Water.
After years of playing the virtually indestructible Thor, Hemsworth’s job in 12 Strong is to make himself seem both vulnerable and tough, without seeming impossible to kill. Peña’s Sgt. First Class Sam Diller brings his patented brand of comic relief combined with a fierce loyalty to his commanding officer. Diller will always be the one to lead the charge into certain death, and somehow that attitude protects him.
War movies aren’t for everyone, and that’s understandable. But there’s something refreshing about such a film that isn’t all about brute strength and tiresome acts of machismo. In many ways, 12 Strong is a thinking-person’s war story, one in which deductive and clever reasoning wins the day as often as who has the most bullets and air support. This is something quite different couched in a familiar cloak, and the results are impressive.