What Makes 12 Strong a Different Kind of War Movie

We spoke to Chris Hemsworth and his 12 Strong co-stars about changing the narrative about Afghanistan.

As is often the case with traumatic events in a nation’s history, Hollywood has been relatively reluctant to tell stories about 9/11 on the big screen.

It’s a tough sell for any studio. We want to better understand how the event impacted us, because it changed the course of our country and the world, but who wants to sit in a theater for two hours reliving one of the worst days in modern American history? 

12 Strong, an upcoming war film starring Chris Hemsworth as U.S. Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson, seems poised to address some of the complicated issues that arose out of the events of 9/11, while telling a unique story that is both slightly removed from the events of 9/11, but directly related to them.

“I thought it was important for the world to see [Afghan soldiers helping American soldiers] and go, ‘OK, this extremist kind of attitude, and groups spreading the terror… it’s not the entire country, it’s not the entire region,” Hemsworth told a group of reporters, including Den of Geek, during a 12 Strong set visit in February 2017.

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And I do think that from the producer’s side of things, they had a similar attitude. Chad Omen and Jerry [Bruckheimer] were saying that was their motivation to tell this story, to educate people or take away the naive attitudes about this part of the world.

A military alliance.

12 Strong, based on the bestselling book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, tells the real-life story of the U.S. Special Forces team that was sent into Afghanistan directly following the events of 9/11 to fight the Taliban. Their mission? To take the strategically important city of city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The 12 men could not have done so without the help of the Northern Alliance, including the controversial General Dostum (played by Homeland‘s Navid Negahban), an Afghan politician and former warlord who is currently the Vice President of Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance knew the region much better than the American soldiers, training them in the tactics that worked best in the mountainous terrain.

“They can do the direct attack, obviously,” said Hemsworth, “and we do in this movie, but the bigger challenge and the talent of what these guys achieved was the relationship they formed with Dostum, the warlord they were fighting with, and getting him to trust them and leveraging centuries-old blood feuds between these tribes and convince them to understand we’re all fighting the same enemy.”

For Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), who plays one of the Special Forces men, the “relationships to this brotherhood” is one of the most fascinating parts of the film. 

Everything you would suspect to happening in a functioning relationship, initially meeting someone that you have no idea about, I mean you don’t even share a language. I mean, you understand bits and pieces because you learn it, but, you don’t understand anything about anything, so there’s that awkward meeting phase where everybody is trying to suss each other out. And then the brotherhood forms, and then you’re all saddled, and then it’s the typical progression of family.

Yes, Rhodes mentioned horses. Because of the rugged Afghan terrain, the Special Forces men had to retrain to fight using horses and only their personal gear. Therefore, horses are an integral part of the film — a fact to which I can personally attest after seeing a whole flock of Hollywood actors ride down a dusty New Mexico mountain during filming.

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“I’d ridden horses a few times over the years,” said Hemsworth, “but mainly just in movies and stuff. A lot of the guys this was their first time on a horse. But, you know, in truth of the story the first time a lot of those Special Forces guys hadn’t been on horses too, so it fit the bill.” I believe they call this method acting.

Playing real-life characters.

Crafting characters based on real-life people is always a tricky balance, but it seems even more complicated when playing a figure like Dostum. What was it like to bring such a controversial figure to life?

“You hear lots of things about him in the news about how brutal he has been,” said Negahban,  “but this man was the first to have a territory in Afghanistan to have schools for women, for girls. He was trying to Westernize his territory… The guys who were there during this time [who consulted on the movie] said he was the General Patton of Afghanistan.”

12 Strong is technically a period film, one that takes place in 2001 before the Afghanistan War officially started. Much has happened in the region, in our country, and in the world since then. For Negahban, it’s important not to think about where his character has gone since the events of that immediately post-9/11 period.

“I try not to let the news after this incident influence me,” said Negahban, who consulted with Professor of Islamic History Brian Glyn Williams and Mark Nutsch (the man who Hemsworth’s character is based on) to learn as much about Dostum as he could.

“When Mark brought some personal photographs, they also sent videos that were shot during this mission from somebody who was following Dostum and recording everything,” said Negahban. “So I was able to see the other side. That’s why I’ve tried not to pay attention to what happened afterwards, because I didn’t want it to influence me. I know what’s going on, but the character doesn’t know what’s gonna happen.”

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While Negahban has never had a conversation from Dostum, the man did send him a note, which accompanied some items Dostum sent over for the filming of 12 Strong.

I talked to his ambassador, Mr. Ayoob Erfani, who flew in from Kabul to Istanbul, then to New York, Phoenix and here. He handed over a suitcase filled with wardrobe that Dostum wore during this incident. It was fascinating. They sent me a couple of the Uzbek hats, three different sizes. They’ve been very generous.

Reframing the war in Afghanistan.

While 12 Strong may be a war film, the producers seem to be making efforts to paint a more complex portrayal of the region than the one commonly depicted in western media.

“That’s what I’m wishing for,” said Negahban. “You see, lots of Afghans are working with us on this project — I’m not going to mention other movies, but some of them, they worked on other movies. And when we approached them to be background, to be working with us on this project, they all turned us down. They didn’t want to work on this one.”

Negahban, an Iranian American, went to the heads of many of the Afghan families living in Albuquerque to explain what 12 Strong was trying to do with its representation of Afghanistan in hopes of assuaging their valid fears of appearing as actors or extras in yet another film that depicts the Middle East in a narrow, racist light.

“America is famous for making propaganda movies,” Negahban said. “Especially Hollywood. So I’m just hoping that this one shows: no, okay, we are respecting, we are showing respect, we are acknowledging, we are honoring those people who put their lives on the line to help get rid of terrorism or war, to bring peace.”

Hemsworth echoes the sentiment, saying that changing the western world’s view on Afghanistan and the war was one of his reasons for wanting to do the film.

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“[The mission] was a diplomatic approach about working with the locals and spreading the word that we’re fighting a common enemy, and that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were the ones that were attempting to take over,” said Hemsworth. I really liked being able to put a spotlight on that and separate this sort of terrorism, and ideology with the rest of the country who do not agree with that and [who] are under the same fear and threat to their freedom as Americans were feeling as 9/11 made them feel.”

12 Strong opens on January 19.