“The only way home is winning,” states Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) to his Chief Warrent Officer, Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon). In the new war drama, 12 Strong, based on real events, Nelson heads a team of U.S. Special Forces who, with the assistance of CIA paramilitary officers, are sent to Afghanistan to face the Taliban, just weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001. In the end, there are several things you can take from the film, but ultimately, winning is what it’s really about.
The film is based on a true story, a declassified true story, with events largely unknown until author Doug Stanton wrote his book Horse Soldiers, based upon the governmental information released years after the event. It’s certainly a fascinating tale, and one that deserves to be told – heroism and sacrifice for the greater good must always be acknowledged – but there’s something cloudy in this particular telling.
Considering the hell this group of Army Green Berets went through (they were Operational Detachment Alpha 595) and what they finally accomplished, there’s no taking away the impact of their achievement. They brought home the bacon, so to speak, even if they couldn’t talk about it once they arrived back on American shores. But even though what they achieved struck a temporary blow against the Taliban, once the film is over and the cheers of an appreciative theater audience watching a win for the good guys subside, when you look at the bigger picture, you can’t help wondering exactly how much of a blow was really accomplished. It’s seventeen years later, and the problems of Afghanistan remain; the Taliban still exists.
In its favor, the film is not the obvious flag-waver some might expect, even though audiences overseas will undoubtedly see it that way. From the poster and much of the advertising hype, marketing has presented an impression of Americans gloriously charging for the greater good into battle on horseback. Perhaps there’s no coincidence that their home-base in the Afghan desert is called The Alamo. But even though there is a charge, it doesn’t come with quite the gung ho, grandstanding cheers the poster leads you to expect. Those men were on horseback because it was the only way of getting to the point where they needed to be. This is no foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade, where honor and glory eclipsed good sense and battlefield logic. For these men and the task they were given, there was no other way.
The assignment is presented simply, even if the ability to accomplish it was not. The 12 strong force of Americans land in Afghanistan where they team up with a Northern Alliance warlord, General Abdul Rahid Dostrum (Navid Negahban). Together, their aim is to capture the desert city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a Taliban stronghold. But in order to get there, the force needs to battle its way through several smaller villages, capturing each one along the way until the allies finally reach their target. It’s an epic story, and one that should be told, but it’s in this particular telling where the film lets itself down. The intentions of 12 Strong are honorable, but what may have the heart of a real-life drama with an opportunity to get to know the lives of the men involved, ultimately comes across as simply a surface tale, told with video game sensibilities. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer knows a young audience. He knows what it wants and what it doesn’t want, and it doesn’t want Lawrence of Arabia.
Each village the team faces is akin to a game level, with points earned along the way until the fighters finally get to where they need to be in order to win. The final confrontation is impressive (all the more impressive knowing that it actually occurred), but there’s a lot on the battlefront that takes place long before Mazar-i-Sharif, and it doesn’t tell a story. 12 Strong doesn’t appear interested in the smaller, more interesting human details, which is what this story should really be about. It relates action.
None of the men have any experience riding horses, and are shocked to find that horseback will be their only mode of transport, yet there’s not a moment seen where the inexperienced riders grapple with their clumsiness; they simply get on and ride off into the desert. Clearly, director Nicolai Fuglsig’s film isn’t interested in the details, or exploring the depth of character required to fully appreciate how it felt for these men to be where they were; he just needs to put all the players where they physically need to be in order to fight, and then fight some more. As portrayed in the film, Hemsworth’s captain is right; the only way home for these men is winning, and in this big screen version of the tale, the only way to win is to play the game.
MPAA rating: R Length: 130 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)