It’s become Hollywood tradition to sound reveille at the start of the year with stories of heroic Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and CIA contractors aimed at putting red-state butts into seats, and close out with a quavering awards-season “Taps” of dutiful acknowledgements that war is, in fact, terrible. And so it goes with the dusty, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced 12 Strong (a title generic enough to be a sports drama), a squarely-in-the-former-category wartime adventure wannabe that turns a real Special Forces operation in Afghanistan into something that feels like warmed-over John Milius.
Adopting a wavering American accent, Chris Hemsworth stars as Mitch Nelson, a captain in the 5th Special Forces Group—the old stomping ground of John Rambo and Col. Kurtz—who leads his team into northern Afghanistan to assist an ethnic Uzbek warlord in the fight against the Taliban just a month after the 9/11 attacks. With only three weeks left before the coming winter freeze, Nelson and his men have their work cut out for them: make contact with the warlord, earn his trust, and help his ragtag militia recapture a village and breach the Tiangi Gap, a narrow ass-crack in the mountains that serves as a supply route from the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Surprisingly stolid and barren for a Bruckheimer production, 12 Strong skates by on the virtues of an old-fashioned programmer: technical competence, an above-average cast, and well-written dialogue, the latter courtesy of screenwriters Ted Tally (The Silence Of The Lambs) and Peter Craig (Blood Father). The director, Nicolai Fuglsig, is a Danish former photojournalist who began his career covering radioactive pollution and the Kosovo War, which may explain the relative restraint. But perhaps it’s best to leave the flag-waving camo fantasies to the true believers. His action scenes are strictly perfunctory, kabooms of gunfire, tossed rubble, flipping trucks, and air strikes executed with the same sense of obligation that characterizes the movie’s Special Forces heroes.
Only three of the men under Nelson’s command leave an impression: Spencer (Michael Shannon), an experienced warrant officer who is relentlessly loyal to his untested, much younger captain; the fidgety but selfless Diller (Michael Peña); and the lollipop-sucking Milo (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes), who ends up taking a shine to a bothersome local kid, as American servicemen in movies about war in the Middle East are wont to do. Not that these characters are all that well-developed (though there is a small, effective vignette early in the film with Spencer and his family), but at least the viewer might end up remembering their names. That’s more than can be said for the rest of the group, who are a blur of gear, injuries, orders, and wisecracks.
One might argue that’s because it’s supposed to be about “the mission.” But what’s the mission about, anyway? For a war film, 12 Strong is short on conflict and adrenaline; it sings the praises of exceptional men, frontline camaraderie, and unlikely odds with all the passion of a grunt following orders. Like most exercises in January jingo, it’s a “true,” “declassified” story, adapted from Doug Stanton’s nonfiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory In Afghanistan—and like the rest of them, it’s about as real as a G.I. Joe action figure. American Sniper, the best of the lot, ignored Chris Kyle’s fabulism, forfeiting possible insight into the psychology of a self-made culture-wars hero. But at least it tried to depict the consequences of traumatic stress.
At the ill-defined center of 12 Strong is the relationship between Nelson and the film’s most Milius-ian character, Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the aforementioned Uzbek warlord, portrayed as a figure of almost medieval nobility. As the expected end-titles epilogue helpfully announces, Dostum would later go on to become vice president of Afghanistan, though it fails to mention the fact that he is currently hiding out in Turkey to avoid prosecution for the kidnapping, rape, and torture of a political rival. Good people might find themselves fighting in wars, but they aren’t likely to lead them. 12 Strong, however, contents itself with peddling the same crap about pure valor and warrior ethos that’s been around since wars were actually fought on horseback—and it doesn’t even have the decency to reward viewers a rousing cavalry charge.