This offering is first and foremost an unabashed gung-ho tale of American military heroism.
January is typically considered a “dump month,” a specific time of the year when studios release movies that aren’t expected to draw enormous crowds. Check the current listings and you’ll likely find your local theaters full of second-tier action films, generic horror movies, and rapidly cooling leftovers from the Christmas season. Hardly inspirational fare, to say the least.
Maybe that’s why it seems odd that Hollywood has of late chosen this time of the year to attempt an appeal to moviegoers’ more patriotic side. Over the past few Januaries, we’ve seen such films as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, The Finest Hours and Patriots Day grace movie screens with their tales of true-life valor. That trend continues with this year’s entry in the real American heroes genre, 12 Strong.
Based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction bestseller, Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong relates the harrowing story of the first American soldiers to enter Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. With winter fast approaching, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his small squad of Green Berets and CIA operatives have only weeks to cross hostile territory full of thousands of enemy soldiers and take control of the must-win city of Mazar-i-Sharif away from the Taliban.
To accomplish this goal, Nelson’s team is embedded with Northern Alliance troops under the command of exiled Afghan general Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban). The idea is simple; Nelson and his men will identify targets, call in American bombers, and allow Dostum’s troops to ride in and clean up once the dust settles. The execution of this plan, however, turns out to be far from simple.
The first problem is that the stability of the Northern Alliance is tenuous at best. Dostrum has switched sides before, so at any moment a shift in the political winds could lead to the betrayal of the American troops. More immediate is the difficulty with the literal ‘riding in’ part of the plan. With most of the country’s military might in the hands of the Taliban, Dostrum’s forces must rely on horses to carry them into battle. Needless to say, the Americans have not been trained in this particular form of combat.
In many ways, 12 Strong harkens back to classics such as Zulu. It shares that movie’s trappings of a small band of brothers facing off against overwhelming numbers in enemy territory with little chance of survival. And even though the outcome of the operation depicted in 12 Strong is now a matter of history, first-time feature director Nicolai Fuglsig manages to pull a fair amount of tension out of the situation. It’s hard not to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush watching a handful of horseback riders charge a fleet of tanks, guns ablaze.
More so than the action, though, 12 Strong is interesting in its depiction of the relationship between the Americans and their Islamic compatriots. The movie spends a good bit of time on the efforts to establish trust between the two groups, not an easy task given the disparate reasons each side is in the fight. The film goes out of its way to point out that in the war against extremists like the Taliban, there are just as many Muslims rushing into harm’s way by our side as there are coming in the opposite direction.
Even so, 12 Strong is first and foremost an unabashed gung-ho tale of American military heroism. That being the case, there’s little doubt the current political climate in these United States will affect the reception the film receives, particularly among a good portion of those who review movies. And that’s a shame. While 12 Strong never reaches the heights of other underdog military tales like Saving Private Ryan or Glory, it’s still a serviceable tale of men who exemplify the old G. K. Chesterton saying, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Dump-month movie or not, the film deserves a little respect for that.