12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers, an action-war film about the real-life exploits of a Special Forces A-team in northern Afghanistan in 2001, exudes the vibe that it might be THE war-film to galvanize appreciation of American fighting-man derring-do in the Post-9/11 era. Like Lone Survivor and American Sniper, but without the mopey parts and bad-news endings, 12 Strong celebrates old-school combat prowess, marries it to portrayal of the wonders of high-tech weapon wizardry, links everything to a righteous cause, and suggests that the movie’s heroes are beyond reproach. To add an element of bittersweet gravitas, 12 Strong also proposes that the heroics of the A-team never received due recognition in their time and in fact, properly appreciated and heeded, offered a way of waging war in Afghanistan that might have avoided the messy failures of the ensuing twenty years of war.
This heightened sense of itself is rendered by portentous textual preludes and prologues, swelling music at every turn, big-budget visual effects, and in the leading role of Captain Mike Nelson, super-star Chris Hemsworth, he of Star Wars, Thor, and Avengers action-hero fame. Captain Nelson and his band of burly, bearded operators are the kind of soldiers who turn over tables and break things when they are angry, because it shows how much they care. They preface almost every response to superior officers by saying, “With all due respect….,” and when left to themselves, give each other shit and play grab-ass as if in homo-social steroid-driven overdrive. Far from being carousing hooligans, though, 12 Strong depicts the operators as highly-patriotic family men when not waging war, and, when waging war, men who easily bond with local children and who avoid collateral damage even as they kill Taliban by the score. Character development is not 12 Strong’s strong suit, but a lightly touched upon subplot is how Captain Nelson, who has never seen combat before, must earn his warrior bona-fides in the eyes of his team, his superiors, and most of all the Afghan warlord with whom they fight, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Spoiler alert: after busting his combat cherry, Captain Nelson has a dark nanosecond of the soul. But after a good bro-talk with a more seasoned operator and some mystical-spiritual claptrap about the warrior way from General Dostum, he is right back in the fight, even better than before.
But to a more systematic cataloging of 12 Strong’s virtues and flaws. On the downside, 12 Strong is too long, and the superfluous, repetitive, and over-extended scenes stick out like sore thumbs. It also succumbs to war-movie cliches left-and-right—bottomless machine-gun magazines, anyone? The big battles featuring Marvel Cinematic Universe-style explosions come off as cheesy. The movie’s signature scenes–rousing charges into battle on horseback—underwhelm. How could they screw those up? (For far-more exciting depiction of horse-mounted US military operations in Afghanistan, read Aaron Gwyn’s 2014 novel Wynne’s War.) The script is awful; even given that they are often speaking in pidgin English to their Afghan counterparts, Captain Nelson and his crew render the impression that they are not very intelligent men. I hope and little doubt that the real soldiers upon whom the characters are based are not as leaden as they are shown here; Captain Nelson, for example, seems almost Will Ferrell-like in his strained efforts to appear thoughtful, and he’s the smart one. Navid Negahban as General Dostum is a cut above the typical GWOT movie Afghan, and the movie tries to render some of his significance as a major player in contemporary Afghanistan history. Perhaps understandably, because it’s a tough nut to crack, 12 Strong falls short in capturing the mercurial combination of emotional excitability and shrewd intelligence that, in my experience, characterized adult Afghan males in leadership positions—always always always calculating advantage and possible outcomes, wary to the max of overextending themselves.
On the good side, 12 Strong offers quite a bit to contemplate. It was shot in New Mexico, and though I can’t vouch for how close the landscape is to the terrain surrounding Mazar-i Sharif in Afghanistan, where the real action took place, the mountainous desert portrayed in the film is gorgeous. Further, 12 Strong is not wrong in many of its particulars, such as General Dostum’s concern that the Americans not die while under his watch as “guests”—on my tour my Afghan allies expressed the same sentiment to me many times, and I believe they meant it. The modern-day cavalry charge may not have impressed me much, but Captain Nelson’s efforts throughout the movie to coordinate air-support to vanquish the Taliban from above was on-point: that’s the modern way of war previewed in 2001 that I connected to most.
Most importantly, the events portrayed in 12 Strong actually did happen, and that counts for something. Plenty, really. America’s first ventures in Afghanistan after 9/11—the Mazar-I Sharif battle recounted here, the search for Bin Laden in Tora Bora, and Operation Anaconda–are tremendously interesting, and I’ll lap up any book or movie that portrays or describes them. They’ll never get the details or the feel exactly right, that’s to be expected, but all are helpful trying to decipher whether the military response reflected quixotic misadventure, the evolving nature of American war-faring, or both.
Released in 2018, 12 Strong has the big-time movie-making sheen of 2016’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, another movie that non-stop glorifies “warfighters.” Whereas 13 Hours deployed stupendous production qualities in support of its anti-Hillary agenda, 12 Strong aims to split the red-state/blue-state difference: its manly men may be rugged killing machines, but they believe in respecting cultural difference, forging alliances, and handing out lollipops, too. Or, rather than split the difference, 12 Strong tries to unite red-and-blue audiences in celebration of perhaps the only chapter in the long sad history of Operation Enduring Freedom that went well. It doesn’t fully succeed, which in the end makes me feel a little bit sorry for it. Good intentions count when it comes to movie-making, as they do in war, but great execution counts even more.