The story of the Horse Soldiers of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th attack is pretty damn remarkable. As told in 12 Strong, 12 American soldiers became the first American soldiers to hit back at al Qaeda by riding horses over some of the roughest terrain on the planet and taking the fight to the enemy in a way that hadn’t been seen since Roosevelt and The Rough Riders.
Based on a true story, Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson who was recently moved to a desk job just before September 11th, 2001. Nelson had to plead with his superiors to be reunited with his team of Green Berets so that he could lead them in Afghanistan. Michael Shannon plays Chief Cal Spencer, Nelson’s second in command who manages to convince their superiors to bring Nelson back.
Nelson, Spencer and their 10 man squad arrive in Afghanistan where they convince Col. John Mulholland (William Fichtner) that they can do in three weeks, prior to the brutal Afghan winter, what the other teams could do in six weeks. It’s a bold and dangerous plan that will require Nelson and his team to not only directly engage the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters but also act as diplomats trying to keep the supposed "Northern Alliance" from crumbling before they reach their objective.
The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan was made up of three different warlords who were as eager to fight each other as to fight the Taliban. Nelson and his team are embedded with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (David Negahban). Those who follow world news closely will recognize that name as he is currently the Vice President of Afghanistan and 12 Strong gives a strong indication as to how he has arrived in his place in the world.
Let’s get the minor issues out of the way first as 12 Strong is quite a good movie and doesn’t have many outstanding flaws. The film employs lazy cliches early on as the soldiers are about to be deployed. Director Nicolai Fuglsig chooses a couple of the soldiers, including Nelson and Spencer, to follow at home and have dull conversations that we’ve seen in every other movie about soldiers about to be deployed.
Nothing against the actors involved in these overly familiar scenes of promises to come home safe, promises of sexual rewards for survival, and children who resent parents for leaving, they just aren’t given anything new or interesting to say or play. The film could have implied these scenes in later dialogue and we’d get the same emotional impact. The story of the Horse Soldiers of Afghanistan is more than interesting enough, we don’t need the families at home stuff to be engaged with these characters.
That’s a minor quibble however, as is the fact that Nelson and Dostum are the only characters who have an arc in the movie. All of the other characters in 12 Strong are archetypes who blend into a faceless mob that we either identify by uniform or by thick, bushy beard. Michael Pena does, at the very least, get to play his least Michael Pena like character. Rather than whining and squinting his way through a performance, Pena is a genuine badass in 12 Strong.
With the problems out of the way let’s get to the strength of 12 Strong; I am highly recommending this movie after all despite my quibbles. Director Nicolai Fuglsig directs his very first feature film and you would never guess it was his first effort. 12 Strong is directed with the assured confidence of a veteran director. Fuglsig’s camera is on point throughout during the battle scenes and the shooting style has an almost unmatched authenticity.
The bombs and the bullets are frighteningly real and when the danger kicks in the film becomes an edge of your seat thriller, even if you are aware of how this story plays out. The ability to wring suspense out of a story based on something that actually happened is rather extraordinary, especially for a first time director helming a film with a big cast and a lot of big special effects.
The cast of 12 Strong is also very good with Hemsworth delivering in the lead and Michael Shannon giving him strong backup. Something about Shannon’s presence elevates this material from macho posturing to something genuine and actorly. Shannon is a real pro and while he’s not always in great movies he elevates just about any movie that he is part of.
As for Hemsworth, he seems to finally be coming into his own outside of the Marvel Universe. His last couple attempts at stardom outside the MCU did not turn out well with the dull racing true story Rush, the abysmal Michael Mann actioner Blackhat and the boring Ron Howard Moby Dick story In the Heart of the Sea. Perhaps it was a pair of attempts at comedy that helped turn things around as he was the only good thing in Vacation and was a standout in Ghostbusters. Finally with 12 Strong he seems fully formed as a leading man minus the superhero trappings.
12 Strong isn’t flawless but it is spectacular in far more ways than it is limited. The action scenes are incredibly well staged and this incredible true story stands on its own without the need for much dramatic embellishment. So many modern war movies could be dismissed as jingoistic macho posturing, but 12 Strong never overdoes it with the pro-America stuff and instead remains focused on great action while letting the true story carry the drama.
If you want to know more about the Horse Soldiers of Afghanistan there is a tribute on the site of the World Trade Center Memorial commemorating the first soldiers who struck back at al Qaeda.