12 Strong movie review: America enters the “graveyard of empires”

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12 Strong green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Tense but never sensationalized action adventure about the first post–9/11 US foray into Afghanistan, an extraordinary culture clash and mashup of medieval and modern technologies.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

A month after 9/11, an elite team of soldiers, US Army Green Berets, had already helicoptered into the remote mountains of northern Afghanistan on a top-secret mission: to support tribal warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, in an effort to retake the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, an essential first step in defeating the Al-Qaeda–supporting regime. 12 Strong tells their now-declassified story, and it’s a case of “If it weren’t true, you’d hardly believe it,” with its extraordinary meeting of cultures and technologies… as well as its probably accidental proof of the well-known Sicilian proverb Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Cuz, you know, no matter whether these badasses succeeded or not (I shan’t spoil for you), we’re still there, 16 years and a bit later.

I’d rather have a film like 12 Strong feature no women at all instead of just plopping in a few supportive cardboard saints.

If 12 Strong is a tad overlong, at a runtime of 130 minutes, that’s down to the faffing around it does at the beginning, as Chris Hemsworth’s (Thor: Ragnarok, Ghostbusters) Captain Mitch Nelson has to do a bit of maneuvering, on September 11, 2001, to wriggle out of the transfer he was expecting, to an army desk job, in order to get into the fight that’s obviously in the offing. (It all comes down to bureaucratic technicalities: he hadn’t actually submitted the paperwork yet. Whew.) Then there are the traditional goodbyes from the stoic army wives who “knew what [they] signed up,” etc, including, in pointless cameos, Elsa Pataky (The Fate of the Furious, Snakes on a Plane) as Nelson’s spouse — who forces him to say out loud that he’ll be “coming home,” even though that’s “bad luck” — and Lauren Myers (Only the Brave) as wife to Michael Peña’s (CHiPs, Collateral Beauty) Sam Diller, who cheerfully cleans the oven as a distraction from the stress of her husband shipping out. Seriously, I’d rather have a movie like this one feature no women at all instead of just plopping in a few supportive cardboard saints.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

And the fact that 12 Strong springs into a sort of taut, grim life once Nelson and his team are on the ground in Afghanistan basically agrees with me. There’s no flag-waving rah-rah crap here — the movie is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Deliver Us from Evil), but you kinda wouldn’t know it — just sincere acknowledgement of the tough job that Nelson and his team are doing with professionalism and flinty humor. (The cast here also includes Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes and Michael Shannon [Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Midnight Special] on Nelson’s team, and William Fichtner [Independence Day: Resurgence, Elysium] and Rob Riggle [My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Hotel Transylvania 2], astonishingly playing it completely straight, back at the US base in-country. The terrific cast here is part of what elevates this way above the junk it could have been.) There’s even humble recognition of the fact that this place is a “graveyard of empires” that has chewed up many a world power before, and that “there’s no playbook” for what Nelson and his men need to do in navigating this singular nation, its convoluted politics, and its impossible geography. When Nelson claims that he will do in three weeks what his superiors have given him six to do, he’s not boasting: he’s merely conceding that the unforgiving Afghan mountain passes he is about to head into will be rendered unpassable by snow by mid November, so if he can’t get done what needs to be done, it ain’t happening till spring. More than you’d expect from the Hollywoodized version of these events, there’s sympathy, understanding, and respect for the Afghans, their local affairs, and their landscape. It’s not all Nelson teaching General Dostum (Navid Negahban: American Assassin, American Sniper) The Way of Things; Dostum has some things to teach Nelson as well.

There’s no flag-waving rah-rah crap here, just sincere acknowledgement of the tough job that its soldiers are doing with professionalism and flinty humor.

Much of that comes in how Nelson and Dostum must combine their capabilities to fight together… which is a bizarre combination of the medieval and the high-tech, with the US Army’s B52s dropping bombs from 30,000 feet using Nelson’s GPS-supplied coordinates, and Dostum’s horses providing their only possible transport in this roadless land. (Doug Stanton’s nonfiction book that is the basis for this film was originally entitled Horse Soldiers.) The Taliban is right in the middle, with old tanks and Toyota pickups. It makes for battle sequences unlike any we’ve seen before, Nelson’s elite soldiers riding into a fight as horse-mounted cavalry armed with machine guns, and calling for bombing runs from so high up that you don’t even hear that bombs are falling, until they explode. Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig, with his first English-language feature, walks a fine line with the military action: it’s tense but never sensationalized, and most often rather mind-boggling, to think that this is how war is being waged in the 21st century, with such uneven odds, and still we can’t seem to win.

Must. Not. Make. Thor. Joke. Must. Not. Make. Thor. Joke.
Must. Not. Make. Thor. Joke. Must. Not. Make. Thor. Joke.

The script, by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (Blood Father, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2), just about avoids the cornball even when indulging in catchphrasey dialog about how “the only way to go home is winning” and stuff about the “heart of a warrior.” (Dostum castigating Nelson for not having the “eyes of a killer” sounds like more of that, too… until suddenly Hemsworth gives Nelson those eyes, and it’s pretty chilling.) Mostly, there’s a lot of respect for honest, on-the-ground soldiering. The troops are, never fear, very well respected here. But we’ve seen this movie too often before. What we need more of are the big-picture takes on why honorable, brave soldiers are having to put their lives on the line to begin with. Those are more difficult stories to tell. But they would be infinitely more respectful of the troops.

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Fri, Jan 26, 2018 9:50pm

Your positive review comes as a surprise. The trailer made this look like schlock. Glad it’s got more to it. And looking at Hemsworth for 130 minutes has a certain appeal.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Dokeo
Mon, Jan 29, 2018 11:03pm

My positive review comes as a surprise to me too. :-)

Steve Gagen
Steve Gagen
Sat, Jan 27, 2018 12:08pm

I you say it’s ok MaryAnn, I’ll trust you enough to take a look. But as Dokeo says, it looks like schlock! Good, thoughtful review.

reply to  Steve Gagen
Sat, Jan 27, 2018 8:32pm

The Wolf, man.

Thu, Feb 01, 2018 1:03pm

I felt the same way about the trailer, particularly with Bruckheimer’s name attached. I wonder how many people will go to see it expecting just another rah-rah war flick?