It seems odd to describe anything using this term, let alone a war movie based on true events, but 12 Strong is corny as hell. Based on the novel Horse Soldiers, the debut film from Nicolai Fuglsig is sure to please its intended audience (Dads), but for those of us who are more discerning about our war pictures, it offers little beyond the basics.
There is something particularly joyful about seeing the Jerry Bruckheimer logo before a movie like 12 Strong, and perhaps it’s best to view the film through a lens normally reserved for other J-Bruck flicks (Armageddon & The Pirates of the Caribbean are among the most popular). To come at this with a Saving Private Ryan appetite would be all wrong. If anything, it’s more like Lone Survivor, but with the added bonus of not being completely unwatchable garbage.
Chris Hemsworth and his unmaskable accent play Captain Mitch Nelson, a good ol Kentucky boy who, upon seeing the 9/11 attacks on TV, rescinds his request to be moved to office duty so that he and his former crew of elite soldiers can be on the front lines of Afghanistan. There are twelve of them, and they are strong, but only three are really highlighted in the film. Along with Nelson, there’s Spencer (Michael Shannon), and Diller (Michael Peña). And let me tell you, these boys are gung ho! Well they’d better be, because they’re being dropped into Afghanistan to team up with a local warlord to help overtake and dismantle the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which doubles as a Taliban stronghold. Despite having no combat experience, Nelson assures his superiors that the team need not use the allotted six weeks to complete the mission — they can do it in just three, and all twelve men will be brought home safely. Because they are strong.
Colonel William Fichtner (as himself) scoffs, but essentially issues an “I like your style, kid,” and sends the team into battle. Rob Riggle is also in it, playing a Colonel who he himself served under. Despite being the one real soldier in the cast (that I know of), I can’t take him seriously. At all. My fault, not his.
The three leading men kiss their wives goodbye in three comically typical moments of parting.
“Promise me you’ll return. I need to hear it.”
“I’ll kiss you when you come home safe.”
“I’m a soldiers wife. I know what I signed up for! But the kids don’t…”
These are misquotes, but you get the idea. It feels weird to laugh at these moments, but they are just so damn goofy it’s hard not to. Credit where credit is due, however, the performers all take it seriously, which helps.
From its hokey moments of “character building” to its sharply shot, but distinctly un-cinematic action sequences, 12 Strong feels very much like one long video game cut-scene. To that end, and through that lens, it works, but video games are a more active medium than film, and without the option to partake in the action, the seams really show.
I feared that this would be a tasteless bit of rah-rah MURICA stuff, but for the most part it maintains a level of class that I’ll happily commend. I remember those early days after 9/11 when our shocked and confused country began to flail wildly. We knew we had to do something, but we didn’t quite know what. We had to respond during a time when we also needed to heal, and 12 Strong accurately captures that feeling. There are reasons why most of us don’t know of this specific mission, and one of them is because it remained classified for quite some time. Also, short of the raw and impressive heroism on display, this mission itself was relatively small. The way that war works now is much different than in the battles of Saving Private Ryan and War Horse, and through the ethical murk it’s tough to justify definitively what was accomplished. The postscript for 12 Strong does indeed explain why this was such an important piece of semi-recent history, but the bulk of the movie is pretty boilerplate in terms of war cinema.
There’s even a villain who gets one scene of despicable villainy, followed by a movie’s worth of brooding from a distance. His counterpart, a warlord with whom our boys have teamed up (Navid Negahban), ultimately steals the movie. He’s the person with local, personal stakes that go well beyond the understanding of the American soldiers, and it’s his silly moments of “I work with warriors, not soldiers!” that resonate a little better than the rest of the cheese.
At the end of the day, despite the many, many shortcomings, this remains a story worth telling, but I’d bet it works better in its original book form. That said, I think Nicolai Fuglsig has a fantastic action movie in him, and I look forward to seeing it.
I should mention that Geoff Stults is in 12 Strong and I thought he was Josh Duhamel, and it was fun to pretend a Transformer could show up at any moment. It does not happen, but can you imagine if it did? Wanna see Dan Scully wave an American flag while screaming Toby Keith lyrics like a maniac? That’s how you get it to happen. With surprise Transformers sequels. Cade Yeager.
12 Strong opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.