12 Strong tells the story of an elite team of U.S. special forces and paramilitary officers who were sent to Afghanistan during the first days of the war there, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, to wage unconventional war against the Taliban regime. Known as the “Horse Soldiers,” these operatives made their way through the unforgiving terrain of the country literally on horseback, embedded with members of the nation’s insurgent Northern Alliance — with neither side quite trusting the other — as they fought one of the initial battles to reclaim Afghanistan from the oppressive Taliban rule.
Chris Hemsworth stars as retired Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson (based on the real-life Mark Nutsch), who has just started unpacking boxes with his wife (Elsa Pataky, the real Mrs. Hemsworth) and daughter in their new home when the planes launch their deadly attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Nelson immediately heads to base and wants in on the American response even if he has yet to see actual combat himself. Hs commanding officer is understandably reluctant, but with the help of his Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (the always dependable Michael Shannon), Nelson gets to re-assemble his squad (which also features welcome faces like Michael Pena and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) and sneak them into Afghanistan.
There they meet General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), who is help them find Taliban strongholds where they can stage ground assaults and call in airstrikes. Dostum simultaneously wants to intimidate the Americans and yet at the same time wave them in the face of the Taliban, represented by Khaled (Fahim Fazli). Nelson is unsure of Dostum’s strategy and is worried about betrayal at every turn, while Dostum is concerned that the Americans have no idea what to do in this harsh country — the “graveyard of empires” as he calls it — and will abandon the mission if it gets too difficult.
That fascinating aspect of Afghanistan — that no major world power, including the U.S., has ever been able to solve it militarily or geopolitically — is given a certain amount of lip service in 12 Strong, which is based on the non-fiction book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. So is the idea that even with all its awesome power, the U.S. military would be forced to fight a lot like they’re back in the 19th century. But first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig (working from a screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig) backburners those themes for a straight action-adventure formula, as Hemsworth’s men plunge into battle and emerge largely unscathed themselves as they mow down the almost cartoonishly-portrayed Taliban baddies (they might as well be Imperial stormtroopers) by the dozens.
Hemsworth is…okay. He struggles with his American accent almost as much as he struggles with figuring out what he’s supposed to do when he’s not swinging Mjolnir. His natural charisma and physical presence help a lot, but if Nelson has much inner turmoil about his mission, we don’t see it. Of his men, Shannon of course stands out as the cynical and world-weary Spencer — he has to stop riding a horse when he slips a disc in his back — while Pena, Rhodes and the rest do what they can with underwritten roles. Negahban probably steals the movie as Dostum, initially kind of suspicious but gradually revealing layers to a man who has seen his people and country go through hell — some of it self-imposed, some of it not — over and over again and doesn’t see a way out.
That’s the biggest problem with 12 Strong: it works as a superficial, patriotic adventure movie yet rarely delves any deeper into most of its characters or the situation they find themselves in. Yes, the men of Task Force Dagger won an important victory in real life, but what did it matter in the end? 17 years later, we are still in Afghanistan and several of the soldiers from that team are no longer with us, killed in the illegal and unnecessary invasion of Iraq a short time later.
12 Strong’s victorious tone, especially in its final scenes, rings hollow because we know what happened afterwards. It’s a military adventure film with a number of admittedly rousing scenes and suspenseful battles, but it has very little context or resonance. As a result it disappears from your thoughts within hours after seeing it. The story and the men probably deserve better than that.
12 Strong is in theaters now.