Jerry Bruckheimer produced “Pearl Harbor” and “Black Hawk Down”. Let’s see where on that spectrum “12 Strong” falls. The full title of the movie is “12 Strong: The Classified True Story of the Horse Soldiers” and it is based on the book by Doug Stanton entitled Horse Soldiers. It was Nicholas Fuglsig’s directorial debut. The movie is the “true story” of the first Americans into Afghanistan after 9/11.
The movie leads off with footage of previous terrorist bombings before 9/11. Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his Green Beret team are tasked for Afghanistan to get revenge and stop another 9/11. It’s time to break the news to the ladies. Chief Warrant Officer Spencer (Michael Shannon) has the wife who is upset that he chooses his career over his family. “I’ll love you when you get back”. Sgt. Diller has the wife that pretends she’s okay with it. She refuses pre-war sex. “It’s the only way I can make sure you’re coming back”. Nelson has the supportive soldier’s wife. “I don’t care how long you’re gone as long as you come back.” They reach a secret base in Uzbekistan and are briefed (key word brief) on the mission. They are to link up with a Northern Alliance warlord named Dostum and his militia. They will facilitate his assault on the Taliban stronghold of Masar-e-Sharif by calling in air strikes. Nelson briefs his men on the suicide mission against potentially 50,000 bad guys and they are all on board. Why not, they got nothin’ better to do. He promises them “I ain’t losing one man.” We’ll see about that. A hairy Chinook ride (“the reason why the Army uses Chinooks is so we’ll be good and mad when we go into combat”) places them at an outpost ominously called The Alamo. The next day, Dostum arrives on horseback. Surprise! He and Nelson have different philosophies of war and will have to gain mutual respect through the crucible of battle. Although only Nelson is experienced with horses, the Americans ride off into history. They are only supposed to call in air strikes, but pressure from the audience will result in them getting their hands dirty. And result in the deaths (but not woundings) of numerous hajjis.
It is hard to review a movie like “12 Strong” because to truly give readers a feel for its flaws I would have to give away much of the plot. It’s the type of “true story” that leaves you craving the facts to clear up all the head-scratching moments. I have seen enough war movies to know that sometimes the seemingly most ridiculous things are actually true. However, the vast majority of the time that I have shaken my head (or laughed out loud), it was because a scene was indeed too good to be true. “12 Strong” has a very high WTF quotient. Obviously, there were horses involved. There is the book and the statue at Ground Zero of a horse soldier to back that up. However, it is hard to believe that horse rookies could do what these characters do. I know people will argue “artistic license” and the non-war movie purists will just go with the Bruckheimer flow. I assume the intended audience will be entertained. Unless you are discerning about war movie clichés.
The movie certainly does not break any new ground. In fact, it assumes we are familiar with old ground. Some of the clichés are cursory because we know them so well why bother wasting screen time. The three wives represent the three stereotypes. They get their minute and then bookend the movie with another minute. One of the men gets a sidekick but he is just there to remind us of “Short Round”. At least the unit is not stereotyped, because the movie has no time to develop any other than Nelson, Spencer, and Diller. I assume one of the others is from Brooklyn, but all I know is one wears glasses and another is black. Nelson is the stereotypical green officer who will have to earn the respect of his battle-hardened crew. Spencer is the wise noncom. Diller is the flippant everyman. Dostum is a fairly interesting character. He gives us the Afghan perspective and you understand why he is skeptical of the American sticktoativeness. Unfortunately, the screenwriter makes him a sage. He’s like a Native American in a modern Western. In fact, the horses are not the only element that reminds of a cowboy movie. There is a charge straight out of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. There is a villain like Magua from “Last of the Mohicans”. To establish his extreme hissability, he executes a teacher of girls. This Bin Laden lookalike wears a very redundant black and sticks around for the classic showdown with Dostum.
People will go to see the movie for two reasons: Chris Hemsworth and combat. A teenage girl walked into the theater and at first I thought she was in the wrong place and then I remembered who the star was. He is pretty good, but the role is unchallenging. He suffers no real command anguish and is always right. The combat is surprisingly unengaging. There is plenty of ammo expenditure and plenty of hajji slaughtering, but I think we are beyond cheering that. Do we also have to be reminded that Special Operatives are killing machines? Hell, these guys not only are able to ride horses competently with little instruction beyond point its head in the direction you want to go, but they can accurately mow down bad guys while charging. They don’t need to be able to reload at full gallop, thankfully. It’s a movie! Bruckheimer must have looked over Fuglsig’s shoulder to make sure even the kitchen sink got in. There are certainly lots of explosions. In fact, the big “here we go” moment comes when a B-52 is brought in, but this results in a very underwhelming air strike for anyone familiar with how devastating those could be. But then, what fun would it be if all the Taliban were vaporized from above. Strangely, the movie gives the bad guys tanks and then only one round is fired. You see what I meant by WTF?
For a war movie lover, fidelity to the facts can overcome clichés and silliness. I have not read the book yet (so I’ll be reposting in the future), but my research has so far confirmed my concerns. Basically, the gist of the story is true. ODA 595 was inserted with the mission outlined in the movie. The Americans did call in air support that was instrumental in the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif. They did travel on horses and face terrible odds. The names of the team members were changed (for no good reason), and only Nelson (Mark Nutsch) and Spencer (Joe Jung) were in the unit. Dostum is a real person and although probably not a sage, is pretty close to the side-switching warlord. I seriously doubt the villainous Rezzan killed his family. Nutsch has stated that the movie is close enough, but his description of the action as “artistic license” is a big red flag. I don’t question the bravery and accomplishments of the men, but the combat is unbelievable and unrealistic.
In conclusion, I will remind you that my reviews are of war movies by a war movie lover. Some will see this movie and find it entertaining, which is fine. But I warn war movie lovers that they may find it disappointing. It does a service by telling the story of the first heroes of Operation Enduring Freedom, but it lays it on too thick. No matter what your feelings are about artistic license, war movie lovers may also be disappointed by the lazy reliance on clichés. Still, it is the rare war movie that makes it to the screen these days. We have to take what we can get. It would be nice if the theater-going matched the anticipation. Come on “Seven Days in Entebbe”, don’t let me down!
GRADE = C