A story so remarkable as that of twelve American soldiers beating tanks and missiles with little more than horses and guns deserves a spotlight. It certainly deserves a better film than what Nicolai Fuglsig could provide. He plays it way too safe with staging a based-on-a-true-story military action film, throwing in all the tropes of a typical action blockbuster. But in trying to assemble his movie more like a gun than a narrative, he forgets a few components to make everything work and what we’re left is a surprisingly disappointing film of one of the most significant operations in the Afghanistan war.
It begins with news footage leading up to the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers to get the patriotic revenge fuel bubbling. Eager to get into the fight with the Taliban is Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a man with no significant experience in combat, but a strong enough leader for dangerous missions. He recently had his team dissolved, but quickly begins the process of regrouping his unit to fight the war in the Middle East. His team consists of Michael Shannon as the quippy soldier, Michael Peña as the lovable quippy soldier, and Trevante Rhodes as the black quippy soldier. They all kid around with each other, but there’s no time for character development when there’s a dangerous job to be done.
Nelson’s men, dubbed Task Force Dagger, are assigned one of the toughest missions in Afghanistan. To overtake a Taliban occupied village, the team will be dropped near the area and work with General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance and his army of horse-riding warriors. Backed up only by a handful of airstrikes that require the utmost accuracy in coordinates, Nelson and Dostum must contend against a seemingly unbeatable force of Taliban soldiers in the rockiest of terrain. They ride into battle on horseback, firing rifles and rocket launchers as they best tanks and missiles. It’s not every war picture where you see soldiers on horses, running a bloody gauntlet of blazing bullets and explosions.
In trying to tell this unique and declassified story, Nicolai’s approach falls somewhere between Tom Clancy storytelling, more concerned with dates and weapons than characters or narrative, and a Jerry Bruckheimer action bonanza. This creates many conflicting tones in trying to hit all the necessary beats. When setting the stage for the military strategies, the dialogue is about as dry with exposition as the desert, regularly punctuated by humorous jabs that never feel natural. When the big battle begins, it’s a fast-edited frenzy of large-scale violence with a guitar-heavy soundtrack and some of the worst CGI blood effects I’ve seen in quite some time. And, wow, did I get tired of the grossly overused sequences where an explosion goes off close to the soldiers, the sound drops out, and soldiers wearily recover in slow-motion as the sound returns. Can we finally retire this trope from military movies?
As a result of this uneven style, much of the story’s more exciting moments feel incredibly underwhelming. I should be feeling something for Nelson’s desire to make it back home to his wife and child, but it’s reduced to brief clutches of his wedding ring and a picture of his daughter. I should be excited when the American soldiers first mount their horses, most having never ridden one before, but it’s quickly skipped over as if it’s a minor hurdle, despite one of the soldiers suffering a significant off-screen injury from riding one of them.
The film fluctuates between so many different war films that it ends up being an underwhelming pastiche of better war films. Nicolai focuses so much on the specifics of the military operation, flooding the screen with endless time cards and scenes of army procedure, that he forgets to make us care about anyone involved. If he wanted to avoid character cliches and pointless banter, akin to Christopher Nolan’s approach to Dunkirk, that’d be fine. But, no, the film still resorts to the most tired of dialogue between battles, with soldiers cracking lame tension-lifting jokes and lots of formulaic dialogue about honor and duty as the music swells.
Everything in 12 Strong feels so middle-of-the-road that it ultimately goes nowhere. It’s boring in its dissection of the mission specifics and brainless in its depictions of combat. Regarding being a mindless action picture, it’s certainly competent in that arena with its abundance of big scenes of war, complete with a scene-wrapping death for the lead Taliban villain.
But should a movie based on a real military event where many people died and risked their lives in the toughest of campaigns be treated with such a broad brush of action cliches? Perhaps that’s enough for some audiences to quench their patriotic thirst, but I couldn’t shake how gross this notion seemed in an intimate scene where Dostum urges Nelson to be more like a warrior by using more of his heart than his brain. The brain certainly wasn’t being used much here with a picture where we learn more about how airstrikes are coordinated than who these twelve heroes were.