January has become military-appreciation month at the multiplex. Black Hawk Down went into wide release in January 2002. It was followed in later Januarys by Zero Dark Thirty (2013), Lone Survivor (2014), American Sniper (2015), and 13 Hours (2016). This year’s offering, 12 Strong, won’t make you forget any of those movies. But it’s a competent action film that has the virtue of moral clarity, and now is as good a time as any to salute the skill and courage of our forces in Afghanistan.
The film tells the story of Army Special Forces Captain Mark Nutsch (here renamed Mitch Nelson and confidently played by Chris Hemsworth, a.k.a. Thor), the leader of a platoon of only twelve men who struck a key early blow against the Taliban just weeks after 9/11. Nutsch and his men joined with Afghan militia led by General Dostum (Navid Negahban) to take the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, which was protected by mountainous terrain that was largely impassable except on horseback. The book upon which the movie is based tells the story in its title: Horse Soldiers. When you’re leading up to a climax that involves mortars, tanks, air power, and men wielding assault weapons on horseback in a furious melee, you’ve got yourself a movie.
12 Strong has its moments, particularly in its helter-skelter depiction of today’s chaotic battlefield and its feel for Afghan trash talk. (“Razzan, son of dog, the Americans will kill you,” Dostum tells his Taliban counterpart over the radio, not inaccurately.) Director Nicolai Fuglsig is not a great visual artist, though, and unlike Michael Bay in the underrated 13 Hours, he does a poor job differentiating one soldier from another, much less fleshing out the stories of their wives and girlfriends back home. Most of this determined dozen simply form a backdrop to Nelson’s heroics, with the exception of grizzled warrant officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), impish sidekick Sam Diller (Michael Pena), and Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), a soldier who unexpectedly strikes up a friendship with an Afghan boy.
The movie isn’t overly concerned with military verisimilitude either, what with the way it has a captain freely interrupting a colonel and throws men into battle who not only don’t wear helmets but don’t even seem to own any. Likewise I’m not sure how you could survive a massive explosion from a suicide bomber standing right in front of you.
Those flaws aside, while I hate to cast aspersions on fellow movie critics, many of them seem offended that 12 Strong is a little too sure of who the good guys and bad guys are in the conflict with Islamist fanaticism — a bit too “rah-rah,” in the words of a Los Angeles Times headline. When it comes to an Afghan woman’s being stoned to death for adultery while buried up to her neck and another’s being shot in the head because she dared to educate her daughters — both shown in the film — the lines seem clear enough.
If anything, 12 Strong is most useful in its ability to remind us of that moral clarity we have lost in the years since 9/11, which already feels like a day from another, more serious and sober era. Nelson, watching the World Trade Center attack on TV, stands for all of those great Americans who altered the courses of their lives to fight, and he and his team managed to fire some of the first shots of what became known as the War on Terror. If the movie is too free with the jock-like banter among the Special Forces troops — at times their level of gravitas seems dialed closer to “rugby match” than “possibly deadly mission” — the kind of tight-knit camaraderie these guys represent is absolutely essential to the military spirit. You may go to war for abstract reasons, but you fight for your buddies, and they for you.
The Horse Soldiers’ audacious attack on Mazar-i-Sharif, which a contemporaneous New York Times editorial called “the first important military victory of the war against terrorism,” cut off a vital Taliban supply route. It didn’t deal evil a death blow, but it was still heroic. Whatever its other weaknesses, 12 Strong deserves credit for reminding us of that.