“12 Strong” is a throwback, an honest to goodness uncynical war film. This will likely be a criticism hurled at it, but I think that the movie’s square, unapologetic celebration of the America soldier is a strength.
Following the national tragedy on 9/11, Special Forces are deployed to Afghanistan to team up with a warlord and bring down the Taliban. One of the teams is led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a skilled but not battle tested officer. His second in command is Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), an older soldier who has seen combat. The rest of his team are all more experienced that Captain Nelson. However, these Special Forces don’t question the orders of their superior and eagerly travel to Afghanistan weapons at the ready.
Once they arrive, they meet the Afghan warlord General Dostum (Navid Negahban). He’s an older commander, who rides horses against tanks and motivates his followers by leading the charge. Captain Nelson must win General Dostum’s favor and methodically provide specific coordinates for strategic bombing missions to take out Taliban and al-Qaeda strong-holds.
“12 Strong” is an exciting and interesting film. Since the bones are based on true events, hence the subtitle “the declassified true story of the horse soldiers,” the narrative has special relevance to American viewers. And the film works, no matter how much the battle sequences may be enhanced in a way consistent with producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s back catalog. After all, Bruckheimer is the veteran super-producer who brought us “Crimson Tide” and “Black Hawk Down,” but who also was responsible for “Pearl Harbor.” Luckily, “12 Strong” is more akin to “Black Hawk Down” than others in his filmography.
Hemsworth is charismatic in the lead, even though his accent is shaky early. Physically, he’s a force to be reckoned with, and here that aspect of his ability shines. It helps that he’s surrounded by great supporting actors. The always likable Michael Peña appears as a member of the team and has some of the best lines delivering sincere emotion. Shannon, who was probably too old to play the lead, is one of the best actors working today, and the script smartly leans on his emotive skills instead of concentrating on shots of him putting a machine gun through its paces.
But surprisingly, Iran born actor Navid Negahban literally steals the show here. As the fierce and thoughtful Afghan warlord, he does it all. Negahban’s General Dostum, who in real life later became the vice president of the country, is pretty well developed and defined. We see him riding horses directly into a battle in the face of tank and machine gun fire. And time is taken for the older, battle-hardened warrior to educate Captain Nelson.
There is a level of profundity to the two men’s relationship that should put a lump in your throat. And as simplistic as the black hat/white hat plotting and posturing is, by giving General Dostum so much screen time, “12 Strong” is more than just a celebration of US Military might. As Dostum informs Nelson, the greatest weapon in the world is the soldier not the weapon he carries. Negahban sells his character better than anyone in the cast. It shouldn’t be surprising that we’re going to see more of him in big movies (like the live-action “Aladdin”) in coming years.
Suggesting that the emotions wriggled out of certain scenes here are the product of grand manipulation may have hints of truth, but such a position ignores the long history of the patriotic war film. “12 Strong” wears its patriotism on its sleeve and does not apologize. The film does exactly what is required and expected and never comes off as insincere and pandering.