“12 Strong” tells the tale of one of the most successful missions in military history. In just three weeks twelve Green Berets with the help of General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban and inhospitable terrain to take back the occupied city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Chris Hemsworth leaves the mighty hammer of Thor on Planet Asgard to play the earth bound hero and Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson. On leave when 9/11 happened he immediately reported for duty, asking that his team be reinstated to fight the Taliban. “You break his team up,” says Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), “and you cut the head off your most venomous snake.” Named Task Force Dagger, they are shipped off to Afghanistan with orders to team with Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban). Outgunned and outnumbered 5000 to 1 this uneasy partnership must endure impossible odds to defeat the Taliban on their own turf.
Based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book “Horse Soldiers,” “12 Strong” is both conventional and unconventional in its approach. Structured like a traditional war film, it’s also the first time (to my memory) we’ve seen modern warfare on horseback on the big screen. Once in Afghanistan the Green Berets discover the best method of transport through the rocky and treacherous terrain is on the back of a horse. In a clash of old and new, the cavalry battle tanks and rocket launchers and it makes for some striking images.
Like so many war flicks before it, in it’s opening minutes we see Nelson, Spencer and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) with their loving families before they are sent to battle. It’s standard shorthand to create empathy for the characters. They are family men driven by a sense of duty to their country. All well and good. We’ve seen it before but actors like Hemsworth, Shannon and Peña rise above the cliché to bring some heartfelt moments to those scenes. But what about the other nine guys in the troupe? We never learn much about them and, as a result, they are just bodies on a screen instead of fully rounded characters.
Having said that, for every war cliché—“Let’s get this war started,” howls Nelson at one point—there is another scene that offers insight into the difficult and confounding task the men have ahead of them. There is much talk of the struggle of fighting an ideological war against people who believe their great reward is in the afterlife. “There’s no playbook for this mission,” says Nelson. “We have to make it up as we go along.” As the first American soldiers to take on the Taliban after 9/11 they face a steep learning curve, finally coming to understand that this will be a war of small victories with no clear endpoint. They may win the battle but still need to fight the war. The confounding nature of this situation will be familiar to anyone who has followed the news coverage of the war in real time but is concisely summed up by Dostum. “There are no right choices here. This is Afghanistan. The grave of many empires.”