Look, you probably know already whether you’re going to go plunk down your hard-earned American cash — or swipe a MoviePass — to catch Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong. It’s the 2018 iteration of what has become an unofficial film franchise: a January multiplex release honoring the hell that American soldiers have faced in far-off deserts in the almost two decades since 2001. But don’t assume that Fuglsig has made another agonizingly conflicted portrait of heroism in the vein of Lone Survivor or American Sniper. Creators of those movies took great pains to celebrate the servicemen while remaining ambivalent about elements of their mission — and even angry about its toll on them.
Yes, the flags waved, and muted trumpets mournfully bleated, but those films found heroism not in the wars themselves but in duty, in resolve, in the soldiers’ caring for each other, in their belief that killing here, in Iraq or Afghanistan, meant less killing at home. The most thoughtful of these films then followed the survivors back to the States, where, shattered, they try to live next to lives they had believed they were protecting. That these movies, even the hits, are punishing and unsatisfying is not a flaw: If they weren’t, they’d be less honest — and they’d connect less powerfully to the American families who see something of their own soldiers in them.
By comparison, 12 Strong is in many ways a throwback. It’s a somewhat boisterous adventure, a war movie where you cheer not just for the boys to make it home but for them to complete the mission. It’s simple in outline, telling its heightened and streamlined version of the true story of Operational Detachment Alpha 595, a squad of 12 sent into northern Afghanistan just weeks after September 11, 2001, and charged with arranging the taking of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban stronghold. Aiding the squad: local warlords represented in the film by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), who sometimes gets distracted from the mission of stomping out the Taliban in favor of waging his own war against his rivals. With Dostum’s men, the ODA 595 must ride on horseback across 40 miles of Taliban-controlled mountains, liberating small villages on the way — and calling in airstrikes whenever they spot enemy fighters. They must complete the mission in just three weeks, before the snow hits.
It sounds like a movie, but much of it really happened. This mission is why, for a couple of years, Donald Rumsfeld was feted as brilliant. Unlike Colin Powell, who insisted wars are won with overwhelming ground forces, Rumsfeld favored a combination of small squadrons and massive bombs, a strategy that won some spectacular early successes but also made inevitable the quagmire the heroes of the other desert-war movies get stuck in. Of course, 12 Strong is a more rousing entertainment than most dramas of our current and recent military imbroglios. Here’s a story where we win, where the goal is clear, the enemies are unambiguous, and the connection to the attack on our homeland is direct. The movie has what devotees used to credit George W. Bush with: moral clarity.
The soldiers here — led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena) — bear the weight of history. They’re eager to kill some Taliban, but their gung-ho spirit is tempered by professional caution and a respect for Afghanistan itself. Twice in the film they’re told that that nation is the “graveyard of empires.” They regard Dostum’s band with respect, heeding his expertise while remaining somewhat wary of his motives. Here’s a spoiler not just for 12 Strong but for all studio movies: As always, the characters here face a moment of apparently complete defeat usually about 15 minutes before the credits roll; surprisingly, that emotional catalyst is the possible death of an Afghan a U.S. soldier has befriended.
Rather than a hellscape just to be survived, the Afghan mountains here are presented with some awe. Fuglsig is adept at showing choppers and peaks, caves and campfires, at suggesting the great silence at the roof of the world. He’s also a sure hand with the geography of battle, with ensuring we understand why the bullets fly in the direction they’re flying — and both where they come from and where they hit. That said, the firefights do wear on. Only the final one, the one where he dares go-for-broke heroic action, is especially memorable. Here are horses charging tanks and Taliban in a mountain pass, often filmed from above, the animals surging through smoke and rubble. (You’d never guess that this was shot in New Mexico.)
The movie also is longer than its story demands and occasionally redundant: After seeing the World Trade Center come down in the opening minutes, do we really need to watch a Taliban leader shoot a schoolteacher in the head? Don’t we all hate these guys already? The moment is corny movie-villain stuff that seems especially egregious considering what the filmmakers omit. Don’t expect a single line from our heroes considering the possibility of civilian casualties when they’re calling in the bombs.
His cast is top-heavy with ringers, and Hemsworth compels even as he tampers down his Thor glow. We see him thinking a lot, weighing risks, working out how best to get the job done and not lose a man. Shannon, blessedly, does not play a crank or villain, instead exhibiting a wised-up wisdom — especially when his character, like a real person, gets jacked up from riding a horse all day. Pena, meanwhile, is Pena, so offhandedly compelling that he steals scenes he barely speaks in, even when playing a character who doesn’t get to make decisions.
The script, by Ted Tally and Peter Craig (and based on Doug Stanton’s book, Horse Soldiers), is long on context and short on nuance. The men continually explain the situation for our benefit: “No one’s ever flown a chopper this high this far!” “You’ve just been handed the most important job in the free world — holding the Northern Alliance together.” But some of what these characters tell each other is true beyond the specifics of their battle. The film’s most striking exchange comes at its end, when an Afghan ally explains to Nelson that they’ll always be brothers — but that if the Americans linger in Afghanistan, they will, like all previous outside armies, become the enemy. Too bad Rumsfeld didn’t get the message.