By: Steve Pulaski
In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, when most of the country was left scared and in a state of mourning the likes of which not seen since Pearl Harbor, a group of soldiers went to work almost immediately. A 12-man gang known as "ODA 595," comprised of paramilitary officers, Green Berets, and highly skilled members of the US Army, was assembled with the goal to engage Taliban forces in Afghanistan under the watchful eyes of a Northern Alliance made up of Afghani intelligence. It was a mission kept mostly classified from public eye, but one that would end up offering, at the very least, some closure for the US and a bit more security for Afghanistan as a country. The mission was predicted to last two years; the men accomplished it in three weeks.
The swiftly executed mission was the subject of journalist Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers, which brought about significant mainstream light to a mission that got lost in a shuffle of a country's understandable uncertainty. To the surprise of no one, Stanton's book is now the subject of a medium-budget film, one that had considerable potential to capture the intensity of ODA's heroics and show the unfairly forgotten men behind the act of valor. Sadly, Nicolai Fuglsig's directorial debut, 12 Strong, is a film with Saving Private Ryan ambitions that falls prey to the "Lone Survivor paradox," as I call it. The latter was a film directly funded by Marcus Luttrell, the surviving soldier on what was essentially a sizable suicide mission; Luttrell helped get the film to the big-screen to make sure the story of his brothers was never forgotten.
Like Lone Survivor, which still managed to be a fairly compelling film, mind you, 12 Strongadmires the soldiers enough to give them the spotlight but evidently not enough to give us a memorable look into their personalities. The film makes clear shortly after its opening credits, when it plunges right into showing the immediacy of inactive soldiers rushing back to do whatever they possibly can for their homeland, that it has no intention of fueling its script with anything besides the vague remnants of character development and male bonding. This isn't an immediate negative. Michael Bay's war film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was upfront about negating the narrative's humanity as well as any political leanings in favor of showing the abject Hell and impossible odds the soldiers faced in the process of an ambush. It was a mostly effective film because it knew its limitations; 12 Strong and its crew would've been better off taking note instead of taking a knee.
The team is led by Mitch Nelson, played by Chris Hemsworth, who drops a wife and a young child after moving into their new home to try and get his old squad back. With a little help from Officer Spencer (the great Michael Shannon), Nelson gets his wish, and his team, made up of Spencer, a likable Michael Peña, a quick-witted Trevante Rhodes, a serious-minded Geoff Stults, and seven others, reassembles to take on Taliban forces deep in Afghanistan (substituted by the barren but beautiful New Mexican landscapes). Not to be overlooked, however, is General Rashid Dostum, played extremely well by Navid Negahban, the leader of the Alliance who provides Nelson and company with valuable intel into the Taliban's whereabouts. General Dostum is not a caricature nor an accouterment to the men; he's a character who has a unique dynamic with Nelson. In a key scene in the film, General Dostum explains to Nelson what he believes is the flaw in the American military; they're led by superior officers, many of whom have conflicting motives, where the Alliance is led by God and men with "warrior" intuition. He also explains why the Taliban are relentless in their pursuit of destruction and why they aren't afraid to die for their beliefs in a way that humanizes them at least to the degree that their motivations are not simply unheard.
Moments like that show what 12 Strong could've been even without the presence of sturdy characters, but at 130 minutes, much of its final hour feels repetitive and lacking in tension. When the bullets and bombs begin flying, all the built-up strategy from the men that dominates a good portion of the first act is sacrificed for a lot of chaos, some of it well-shot by the newcomer director, but much of it interchangeable and redundant. Due to the overwhelming presence of combat and the nonexistent interpersonal relationships, this creates the problem of a serious deficit in suspense. Because we don't feel much for the characters, we can't feel greatly disturbed by the fact that they're putting the lives on the line other than the instinctive human emotions that tell us we wish they didn't have to do such a thing. It's facile and ineffective as it currently stands.
You can say Hemsworth, Shannon, and Peña all give strong performances, but you'd be shortchanging their talents just as much as the film does. These are men who have proven worthy of a challenge; they're men who, on their best days, are some of the best talent Hollywood has to offer. They essentially play their go-to archetypes here, although Shannon's grimace, I confess, is almost as effective as it is in his better roles (IE: most of his filmography). The men are not giving bad performances, per say, but they're made weaker by the material that does them no favors by giving them dialog that doesn't belong to any specific character.
12 Strong proves that New Mexico still provides Hollywood productions with great real estate at half the cost and better tax-breaks than most other US cities when it comes to shooting a film. However, it goes on to further prove something significant about war films and that's if you don't have character, you better have tension or a commitment to some kind of evident craft. 12 Strongtries to operate on fumes as if it doesn't see itself getting far out of the gate before succumbing to a meltdown in the form of exhausting violence.