In the days after 9/11, as the United States grieved the terrorist attacks that claimed over 3,000 lives, the men and women of the United States’ armed forces prepared to take down the Taliban, the brutal theocratic regime that gave sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network Al Queda. Among the first to cross in the harsh, unforgiving territory of Afghanistan was a unit of 12 Special Forces fighters who worked with the various Afghan factions to initiate the toppling of the Taliban regime. Now the true story of the soldiers who rode on horseback in the mountains of Afghanistan comes to the big screen in 12 Strong. Based upon the book by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth and is directed by newcomer Nicolai Fuglsig. At a press conference in Los Angeles, Hemsworth, Fuglsig, Stanton, and other members of the cast and crew behind 12 Strong talked about bringing this true story to the silver screen.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff in the comic book world, fantasy-based heroes and so on. It was a lot of fun, but I desperately wanted to do something with some real heart and more grounded, and this script came along a few years ago – my first instinct was I couldn’t believe this was a true story,” said Chris Hemsworth. “I knew about this conflict and this world, like a lot of people, but not about this mission. I was engrossed and shocked and fascinated by the details. And speaking with the real guys during the process and there was such an honesty and openness and lack of dramatization and ego as they retold and recount these events and such a humility.”
Hemsworth then added, “They’re real heroes. You know, to put themselves in these positions – in harm’s way – with their safety in jeopardy for the rest of our safety is something beyond admirable, something that’s inspiring and something that I felt an honor to play this character and be a part of this story. I definitely felt the weight of that responsibility. I think we all did.”
“I think that these men don’t see themselves as heroes,” said legendary producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “They’re just doing their job. That’s what they’re trained to do. They do it because they love their country, they love their families, and they’re professionals. They’re highly trained, highly intelligent, and they’re deadly. The fact that they went into this country and bonded with the Afghan people, and you have to understand that there are so many different tribes, and they show it in the movie, they all fight amongst each other and this group of 12 men went in there and got them all to work together against a common foe. It comes down to our military and how well-trained these men are. They don’t see it as sacrifice. They see it as their job, something they’re trained to do.”
One aspect the film deals with is the difference between a warrior and soldier. “I think the difference between a warrior and a soldier is warriors lead with their heart, soldiers lead with their mind,” said Trevante Rhodes in his first major role after his breakout in Moonlight. “I think it’s very valuable to lead with your heart. That’s, at least in my opinion, that’s the truest and most honest for of reaction in any way. I mean, most of the times when we think and lead with our mind we make mistakes.”
“What makes this movie so fascinating, what they’ve done so brilliantly is these guys, the Special Forces soldier is a diplomat on the ground,” said author Doug Stanton. “You want to think about World War II, actually, and people dropped behind enemy lines to foment resistances. So therefore, the relationship Chris has with Navid [Negahban] in the film is really a key central driving emotional point, so the movie is filled with action and also really tries drive home the fact that this is America working at its best to create social change and using combat, if necessary, but also using the power of the mind, as Trevante said, almost like Jedi Knights trying to do mind meld with the culture engaging with and being respectful with. So it’s very interesting complex movie in that way.”
“I think, for me, what stands out the most is the bravery of these guys,” said actor and producer Thad Luckinbill. “A lot of us remember where we were and what we were thinking on 9/11, and then just the fact that these guys were the first, essentially the first guys in and didn’t really know how to do the job they were supposed to do. They learned on the fly and they did it without complaining – I’m sure they complained a little bit. They did it through bravery and patriotism and the right way. That’s what we really neat to portray.”
For producer Molly Smith, the heart of 12 Strong can be found in a single line. “There’s a line in the movie that I love. Michael Shannon says, ‘How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?’ I think that’s such a poetic, beautiful line because people do this every day and they make sacrifices for their country, the comradery, the love. It’s their duty,” Smith said.
The producer continued, “I think we’ve really tried to capture the spirit of the military, all branches of the military and soldiers in general. You know, by showing some of the layers and complexities of the home life, their families, and, of course, seeing the scope of what these guys went to go do because they felt a sense of duty to fight for their country.”
The line that touched the heart of Molly Smith also left a strong impression on author Doug Stanton. “It’s funny you brought up that scene, ‘How do you go to war and still love your family?’ I remember sitting in Bob Pennington’s kitchen and he gave me that line as I was interviewing him and when I heard it in the movie it just – I got choked up,” the scribe recalled.
“Because, in essence, this is a secret story that we’re now telling about a part of our society that has been fighting for 17 years and in some ways to walk away from this movie is to be aware of your own communities and what’s going on and the sacrifices these people are making. I think these guys succeeded because they weren’t afraid to fail. We talk so much about success in this country, which is great, but the reality is the S.F. – the Special Forces guys – are trained to learn how to fail,” Stanton then added.
A few members of the cast added their own military experience to the film. Despite Rob Riggle’s experience in the United States Marine Corps, he was not asked to work double duty as a consultant on the film.
“We had, not that Rob wouldn’t be the perfect guy to go to, we had some of the real guys that this book was based on,” said actor Geoff Stults. “We had military advisers there. One of the actual actors, Kenny Sheard, is a former Navy SEAL. So we had a lot of people with a lot of experience that we leaned on. By the end, everyone made a move or held a gun, turned to Kenny and he’d go, ‘mmm-hmm.’ So we had people there to make sure we didn’t screw it up. That was important to everybody, to the producers, to Jerry, to everybody – just be authentic and pay these guys the respect that they deserve and tell the story that should be told.”
Searching for consultation to aid the film’s authenticity wasn’t limited to just military advisers. “It was great, too, because Navid reached out to a lot of these communities, and he should get a lot of credit for that,” said Thad Luckinbill about the film’s Afghan lead. “It was great to have the real people there, authentic Afghans just like we had real people teaching us how to do the military stuff right.”
“My pleasure,” said Navid Negahban, who plays General Dostum, a leader of the Afghan resistance who over the years would rise to be one of the nation’s political leaders. “One of the most important things was because I think this is the first film that is truly shows what Afghans went through and how we united with them to achieve our goal. The families that I talked to, some of them didn’t want to be involved with the film. But when I told them what we are doing and what this film is about, the head of the families got together and all of a sudden we could find any Afghan actors to work with us, and suddenly we had 400 people lined up from Uzbek families, Tajik families, Hazara families, all of them.”
“There’s an expression: you can see the truth when you’re blind, you can hear the truth when you’re deaf,” said director Nicolai Fuglsig, presenting his intent to create a more humanistic form of war movie. “If you put all your differences aside and look as who the person is you will see how similar we are and you will discover our similarities, not our differences and that’s what the world is about. It’s about us being the same. There is no difference except the color – who cares? Go inside, what’s inside you is pure white. There’s no difference in the whiteness inside me and anybody sitting here. Everybody, we’re the same.”
“We’re very fortunate that we could show their excellence in this movie, and thanks to Doug we found this story because this was classified,” said Jerry Bruckheimer in praising the author of the film’s source material. “We’d never know this story if not for Doug digging in. He ran into a soldier who started telling him about this classified mission that he couldn’t talk about. That’s so interesting. This is just one mission. There are so many others that we know nothing about that they’ve done.”
“I think it’s an homage to the human spirit,” added Fuglsig. “Both on the Afghan and American side, all these heroes were just ordinary people. They could be your friend, your neighbor. Under extraordinary circumstances, they all the rose to the extraordinary.”