'12 Strong' Set Visit: A Post-9/11 War Drama That Is More Relevant Than Ever

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Warner Bros. Pictures has a new war drama called 12: Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers coming to theaters in January of 2018. Formerly known as Horse Soldiers, the film follows a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers sent into Afghanistan almost immediately after the attacks of 9/11 on a mission to track down a network of terrorists. But in order to get the job done, they must form a surprising alliance during a difficult time, one that is more relevant than ever during today's times of political and cultural strife.

On February 7, 2017, /Film was invited to visit the set of 12 Strong during production in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We talked to stars Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes and Navid Negahban about their work on the movie, which included riding horses into battle on a small mountainside while flaming debris and gunfire surrounded them. Find out what we learned about the film and the true story at the center of it in our full 12 Strong movie set visit report below.

The Story

Based on Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers, inspired by the true story of the aftermath of 9/11, the war drama 12 Strong follows Chris Hemsworth as Captain Mitch Nelson and his small band of U.S. Special Forces soldiers (which include Michal Shannon, Michael Pena, and Trevante Rhodes) as they are sent into Afghanistan to hunt down the Taliban terrorists and their Al Qaeda brethren for orchestrating and executing the attack on the United States back in 2001.

Once in Afghanistan, the soldiers soon find that they won't be able to rely on their high-tech gear or any back-up in order to complete this mission. Instead, they must team with Northern Alliance General Dostum (played by Navid Negahban) and his band of Afghani soldiers in order to fight this common enemy. Citizens of the Middle East and soldiers of the United States had to overcome their cultural divide during a time of seemingly insurmountable tension and anger in order to fight a common enemy. Outnumbered 40-to-1, the U.S. Special Forces soldiers and their new allies rode to war on horses into the city of Masar-i-Sharif in order to strike a critical blow against a group who not only left a scar on America, but have been terrorizing the people of Afghanistan for years.

12 Strong

On the Set of 12 Strong

After huffing and puffing up a small mountainside to the set of 12 Strong in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we find an army of soldiers on horseback, armed and ready for battle. In front of them lies a steep drop down the side of the mountain, littered with fake corpses (including partial horse dummies), destroyed tanks and debris from battle. Further down the mountain lies their target, a small city structure where the enemy is firing upon them.

While the small group of press on this set only had to climb this mountain once, the stars of the film, their trusty steeds, and the Afghani extras charged down this small mountainside for several takes. Thankfully, the impressive and breathtaking imagery of seeing the heroes from both sides charging into battle appears to be worth the exhaustion for them.

Throughout the day, the team of soldiers (including Chris Hemsworth and Michael Pena on horseback) and their new Afghani allies make it further and further down the mountain side. As they inch closer to the field of debris, the action gets even more intense. Gunfire and smoke surrounds them as a destroyed tank is set on fire in the middle of the set. Zirconium pellents are fired from paintball guns to create the sparks of bullet ricochets on set. Remember, all this is happening on a mountainside where the wind is blowing sand and dirt quite fiercely.

The level of orchestration required to pull off some of these takes was astounding. This isn't just a normal battle scene from a contemporary war drama. There have actors and extras on real horses, charging into battle. Most times on set visits, you don't get much of an idea for the cinematic scope of the events you're unfolding until you get to see it in the monitors in video village, where the director oversees the footage that was just shot. But here, standing on a mountainside in Albuquerque New Mexico, you can see the movie playing in front of your very eyes.

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This Isn't Just American Propaganda

In the years following 9/11, there have been countless movies about the aftermath of the attacks from a variety of perspectives. We've seen stories about soldiers sent to war, stories about those who rescued survivors in the attacks, and stories about families who lost loved ones. 12 Strong initially looks and feels like the kind of gung-ho, all-American  war drama that we've seen become more prominent in recent years, boiling the complicated conflict down to action and blind patriotism. But while speaking to the cast, we learned that this movie has a little more bubbling beneath the surface.

Immediately after 9/11, there was an anti-Muslim, pro-patriot sentiment that couldn't be escaped in the United States. We are currently seeing a resurgence of these sentiments. 12 Strong aims to inform Americans that this first battle we fought against the Taliban was not a victory won solely American soldiers. Instead, our forces teamed up with Afghani soldiers and citizens who were sick of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and want nothing more than to rid their country of these despicable people. It's more relevant than ever, as ignorant people lump all people of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim beliefs into the same group as extreme terrorists.

For Chris Hemsworth, this story angle was particularly intriguing to him. The actor noted that the film differs from the various Navy SEAL movies that we've seen unfold during the war on terror in the Middle East:

"With Special Forces guys they embed themselves in a community over a course of months or years, and there's a diplomatic duty and relationship-building within these communities to achieve their outcome...the bigger challenge and the talent of what these guys achieved was the relationship they formed with Dostum [played by Navid Negahban], the warlord that 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."

This alliance between Americans and Afghani people was a key part of the story Hemsworth hoped to tell, and the extras on the set had the same sentiment. Hemsworth elaborated:

"I've had people from Afghanistan say, 'Thanks for helping to tell the story that says we're not all terrorists.' It wasn't about America coming in and saying, 'We're taking over and this is how we do it.' It 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. 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. We are under the same fear and threat to their freedom."

12 Strong

This was such a concern for Afghani people that Navid Negahban had to convince local actors in Albuquerque to be part of the production. Many of the Afghani extras and supporting cast members were wary of playing terrorists and being made out as the enemy again. But Negahban, who believed that this story needed to be told, personally reassured several participants that this would be something different. The actor explained:

"Lots of Afghans are working with us on this project...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. I've talked to the heads of all the families here in Albuquerque and explained to them what we are trying to do. America is famous for making propaganda movies. Especially Hollywood. So I'm just hoping that this one shows 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."

Trevante Rhodes' character strikes a significant relationship with one of the Afghani kids, further cementing this bond between two drastically different cultures. Rhodes says, "I play a character named Ben Milo who is my eyes the heart of the film, the more earnest one of the film. He has the most beautiful, paternal relationship with this Afghanistan kid and it becomes something great."

This is just what happens when people spend the time to understand each other and find common ground. Rhodes says there's an adjustment period, but that fades away as time goes on:

"Everything you would suspect to be happening in a functioning relationship, initially meeting someone that you have no idea about. I mean, you don't even share a language. 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."

12 Strong Trailer

What Makes This Unlike Other War Movies?

Let's not forget this is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The producer of Top Gun knows how to tell an exciting story set during war times, and 12 Strong appears to be no different. So what was it about this specific story that made Bruckheimer get involved? The producer explained, "The mission itself is totally unique." Furthermore, we haven't seen these kind of soldiers in action in a big movie like this for sometime. Bruckheimer added, "It's the first time Hollywood's made a movie about the Special Forces since The Green Berets. They're a really special group and they should be memorialized."

Bruckheimer elaborated even further on his fascination with this story:

"I like realistic looks and people in real stressful situations, and this is the most stressful as you can imagine. These guys were dropped in here without protection, no support. There were 12 of them, there were a few CIA guys who came in two days before they did, and there were $100,000 bounties on their heads, $50,000 on their bloody uniforms. They weren't sure Dostum was gonna turn them into the Taliban, because he supported the Russians. So they had no idea what they were getting into. And it was a secret mission, so if something happened, no one would've known what would happen to them. And yet by November, they came in October, they had driven the Taliban out of Masar-i-Sharif. So it's a pretty historic thing, and fortunately none of our guys got hurt."

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Can 12 Strong Deliver on These Promises?

After seeing the trailer for 12 Strong, the question I have is whether director Nicolai Fuglsig can deliver on what everyone hoped this movie would represent. Our first glimpse at the movie plays up the heroics of our soldiers and focuses on the action, because that's what's going to get butts in the seats. They even used a somber cover of Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" to pull at the heartstrings. But so far, the larger message is being overshadowed. That's likely because a message like that is hard to get across in a two and a half minute trailer that not only has to tell audiences what the story is about, but also convince them to see it. But I hope that the message all the actors believed in doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

We'll find out when 12 Strong hits theaters on January 19, 2018.