“12 Strong” Movie Review


     There was time during the 80s, 90s, & early 2000s when producer Jerry Bruckheimer could churn out military films like “12 Strong” in his sleep.  With producer credits including everything from “Top Gun” (1986) to “Black Hawk Down” (2001), and plenty in between, the Bruckheimer name in front of a film meant audiences were in store for copious amounts of bombastic action sequences, explosions, and the kind of testosterone enhanced heroes people love to cheer for.  Aside from producing the mega successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise for Disney, Bruckheimer has mainly kept busy in the television world over the past decade, but the story of the first official post 9/11 military operation in Afghanistan has proven difficult to resist for one Hollywood’s most accomplished filmmakers.  Bruckheimer oversees director Nicolai Fuglsig in his feature debut, while Ted Tally and Peter Craig provide the adaptation of Doug Stanton’s novel “Horse Soldiers”, in what most will see as a patriotic tribute to the men and women who defend our freedom each and every day.

     The initial scenes of the film certainly treat the audience with a level of respect in that the events of 9/11 are shown briefly on a television being watched by Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his family.  Each and every one of us can remember that day and exactly where we were and what we were doing at the moment we became glued to the news, sitting helplessly in horror as the country was attacked and thousands of innocent people died.  Fuglsig smartly moves past the need for justification and immediately immerses us within the Special Forces unit most qualified and prepared to strike the first blow against those who perpetrated the attack on the World Trade Center.

     Of course, there are always scenes that seem obligatory when this kind of story is told.  Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), a grizzled Warrant Officer on the verge of retirement, pleads with his unit commander, Lt. Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle), to allow Nelson to lead their team of operatives on the first strike against the Taliban, who at the time had taken rule over Afghanistan and was thought to be running terrorist sponsored training camps throughout the region.  As it turns out, Bowers, despite initial concerns, decides to send Nelson and his team for the first mission, leading to a series of set up scenes where the men are shown interacting in the kind of ways we see in virtually every film set within military circles.  Something we would call “smoking and joking” back in the day.

     Once in country, Nelson is briefed on his mission and the task proves to be a harrowing one.  As the clock ticks toward a brutal upcoming winter, the Special Forces team has mere weeks to lead a Northern Alliance Afghan army into battle against well armed Taliban fighters who now occupy key villages in the northern portion of the country.  Making matters worse, the leader of the Afghan forces, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), is in the midst of a turf war with other northern leaders.  Each of them fights against the Taliban, but they are also apt to fighting against one another.  It’s the politics that proves to be the toughest nut for Nelson to crack, but ultimately, he and his team know they must succeed in breaking the Taliban’s grip in the area or risk more attacks on the United States.

     It’s difficult to view “12 Strong” without conjuring images of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo fighting along side the Taliban against the Russians in “Rambo 3”, especially given our heroes in this film join the Afghan army on horse back  as the primary means of attack due to the unforgiving terrain.  The 1988 film came out at the tail end of Russia’s war with Afghanistan, ironically highlighting our support for the Taliban at the time who was led in part by, yep you guessed it, Osama bin Laden, who would later go on to become the founder of al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9/11 attack.  But here, since they’re no longer fighting our Cold War enemy and are now in the business of supporting terrorists, they have become our enemy.  

     Fuglsig proves no slouch in constructing chaotic and realist battle sequences in which you often have no idea, with the exception of the Special Forces team, who the good guys are and who they’re supposed to be shooting at.  Some of the Taliban fighters are decked out in black clothing and headwear, but when the bullets begin to fly and the dusty smoke like desert clouds everyone’s vision, you have to wonder how these guys were able to be successful.  And when you really think about the fact it took until May 2, 2011 to find and kill bin Laden, it makes you wonder how many of these battles did our soldiers and Marines have to endure while fighting a well prepared enemy on their home turf.

     Of course, “12 Strong” is about a successful mission in which there were no casualties.  I wonder if a forthcoming Bruckheimer film will address the well over 2000 service members killed in Afghanistan since the events of “12 Strong” and the countless men and women who suffer from PTSD each day who were fortunate enough to make it back home.  Each time one of these pictures comes out, I always find myself conflicted, given the fact we know the attraction lies with the action sequences, the guns, and the killing of the enemy.  Take all that away, and what’s left?  Are there humanistic qualities to the characters as presented?  Fortunately, the answer is yes, as we get a number of well written and acted moments between teammates that bring enough levity and emotion to set the characters in “12 Strong” apart from the often mindless entertainment that audiences flock to.  It’s also a stunning tribute to the men who, against all odds, accomplished their mission when they knew their entire country was counting on them back home.  GRADE: B