The tragic events of September 11, 2001 are the most important of the 21st century. Beyond the horrific loss of innocent life, the military response set forth the foreign policy of an entire generation and ensured that there would be an American presence in the Middle East for the foreseeable future and then some. The true stories of heroism and sacrifice from the men and women in uniform have provided plenty of inspiration for the cinema, but the political and militaristic realities of these ongoing conflicts have prevented most of these films from reaching their full visceral and emotional potential. Now comes director Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, based on the true story of the first team of American soldiers to enter the rocky terrain of Afghanistan in October of 2001. While maybe not the jingoistic bloodfest of its peers (I’m looking at you, Lone Survivor and 13 Hours), 12 Strong still has many of the deficiencies that plague movies trying to depict the events of these ongoing and divisive wars.
In a brief opening montage, Fuglsig attempts to lay the groundwork to the events that led up to 9/11, with archival news footage from the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombing of US embassies in Africa in 1998, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Then, for reasons that I’ll never be able to understand, the montage cuts to footage of Russian president Vladimir Putin recounting his warnings to then president George W. Bush. This bewildering inclusion of a brutal dictator is just a bit of the setup for some of the more incongruent aspects of 12 Strong that will emerge later in the film.
Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is moving into a new home with his wife (Elsa Pataky in a thankless role) and young daughter when the events of 9/11 appear on the television screen. Mitch was about to leave behind his special forces unit and take a desk position within the military but the grave threat posed by Al Queda have prompted Mitch to demand that he rejoin his unit, even though his commanding officer (Rob Riggle) is basically one of those buddy cop movie clichés, practically yelling, “You’re off the case, Nelson!” After a bit of finagling by Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Mitch is back in charge of his unit of 12 soldiers, all of whom will soon be departing the United States for the unforgiving terrain and battle within Afghanistan.
The mission: Captain Nelson and his men are to be dropped off in the northern reaches of Afghanistan where they’ll team up with General Dostum (Navid Neganhban), an enigmatic Afghan leading a ragtag band of fighters against the Taliban. With a shaky alliance between Dostum and Nelson, and an even shakier alliance between the varying tribes of Afghanistan, the American forces must work with the Afghans to seize territory from the Taliban before the brutal winter swoops in, leaving the soldiers three weeks to complete a nearly impossible mission.
The initial setup to comradery of the unit is rather clunky and the dialogue is often leaden. Out of the unit of 12, only maybe two or three aside from Hemsworth get much depth to their characters. Part of the problem is the way the screenplay Ted Tally and Peter Craig (adapting the non-fiction book by Doug Stanton) laboriously tries to explain the various aspects of their mission instead of focusing on little unspoken moments of characters. There is, in fact, a scene in the middle of the film where it cuts away to the command unit where William Fichtner and Riggle explain what is happening, sapping the film of forward momentum. Michael Peña as Sam Diller gets most of the film’s comedic relief, but it’s not until much later that the film shows any interest in his character beyond his wisecracks. Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes is mostly squandered though his character does get a few memorable moments with an Afghan teen assigned to follow him in battle.
Undoubtedly, the most fascinating character dynamic in 12 Strong is that between Hemsworth’s Nelson and Negahban’s Dostum. In a lot of ways it mirrors the relationship between T.E. Lawrence and King Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia. Here you have two characters with nothing in common, a culture clash necessitated by war. Personally, I’d have preferred if the film followed the perspective of General Dostum, who coyly withholds information from his allies and is the lone conduit for the audience to pick even the slightest bit of information as to the tribal conflicts that have prevented Afghanistan from healing its wounds of war for decades. But this isn’t the kind of movie that wants to take the moments to let the situations and characters breathe.
Making his directorial debut, Nicolai Fuglsig shows an eye for capturing action but struggles to control the tone of the violent mayhem. 12 Strong takes on the viewpoint that American lives are more valuable than the lives of the Afghans, which often comes across as grotesque spectacle. In one particular sequence, we’re witness to countless Afghans on both sides falling in barrage of gunfire. Throughout the action, the film takes no time to distinguish the good Afghans from the bad, and they body count just escalates amid this frenzied action. Then the action pauses, so Hemsworth’s Nelson can mournfully look at an Afghan teen who saluted him earlier. The teen was never given a name, never did anything else in the movie, and yet he’s supposed to be this lone Afghan that the film wants us to mourn despite thousands of dead right before our eyes. I understand that war is hell and it’s complicated in a conflict where allies and enemies don’t wear uniforms, but the film struggles to craft anything resembling characteristics for Afghans beyond Dostum; and that includes the film’s “villain” who we’re witness to brutalizing innocent women and children in a brutal scene that doesn’t aid the narrative as much as revel in brutality, as if viewers wouldn’t understand the Taliban is bad without this scene.
12 Strong isn’t as misguided as a number of the other military true stories that have graced the screen in Januarys past. But it’s still a muddled movie that never fulfils its promise in its various aspects. When you think the character moments are working, a violent bloodbath ensues and continues so long that those little moments are lost in haze of blasting gunfire that is lacking in suspense. What is perhaps the most bewildering aspect of 12 Strong is the way in which character talk about the necessity of victory. It takes you out of the movie because there’s simply no way to forget that America is still mired in Afghanistan. Therein lies something revealing about why I think these modern war films fail to unite audiences and critics – these aren’t typical wars by any stretch and the notion of victory in Iraq or Afghanistan seems as realistic as a dragon swooping in to smite our enemies. It’s important not to conflate the sacrifice and bravery of the soldiers on the ground with the political decisions that put them in harm’s way. Reminding us of the elusive nature of victory in Afghanistan distracts the audience from the human elements of the story, and it’s the sacrifice and difficult compromises made in the midst of battle that should be the heart of 12 Strong and it sadly isn’t.