'12 Strong' Review: A Capably Made But All-Too-Familiar War Movie

Two questions inevitably crop up as a movie based on a true story unfolds. First, how much of what's happening on screen is actually what happened in real life? Second, how much of what happened in real life can translate into something dramatically interesting? The new war film 12 Strong begins with a compelling enough hook, following a dozen U.S. soldiers who were the first men to attempt to take down the Taliban in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Unfortunately, while the real events indeed seem fascinating, they don't make for a compelling film.

Chris Hemsworth plays Mitch Nelson, a soldier who'd been transferred to desk duty in a Kentucky Army base in the days just before 9/11. Immediately after the attack, he convinces his superior (Rob Riggle) to let him get back in the field with his team, although he's never led them into active combat before. His fellow soldiers (played by, among many others, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, and Trevante Rhodes) believe in him unwaveringly, of course. However, as 12 Strong follows the team into the mountains of Afghanistan, Mitch is even able to bond with an Afghani general leading the local assault against the Taliban, though he and his fellow Americans struggle with traversing those mountains on horseback.

Horse riding aside, much of 12 Strong feels awfully familiar. There are the Americans' gradual but never-terribly-emphatic attempts to ingratiate themselves with the locals, like when Rhodes' character slowly befriends the young Afghani boy who tails him. There's a handful of brief moments meant to highlight the camaraderie between the dozen Americans, just as there are brief and wistful moments where they wonder if leaving behind their families to fight this war was the right thing to do. The good news is that Hemsworth, Pena, Shannon, and Rhodes are naturally charismatic enough to sell this overly familiar material (although casting a non-American actor to lead a movie so squarely about American soldiers seems...a bit weird). The bad news is that the script, by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, never tries to deliver anything but overly familiar material. What we know of these men, within the context of the film, is minimal at best; they are all heroic, but in a bland and generic sense in spite of the capable actors portraying them.

Director Nicolai Fuglsig, making his feature debut, does not slip into a choppy and incomprehensible style of action filmmaking, which is a welcome surprise. Fuglsig stages the various firefights between the American/Afghani and Taliban forces capably; also, a lot of the action seems to be practical, eschewing obvious or cartoonish green-screen or CGI. However, many of those firefights extend a minute or two more than they need to, expanding the film's length to more than 2 hours. In spite of the film focusing on 12 American soldiers (as well as their Uzbek comrade), 12 Strong is much more invested in the action than the people within those scenes.

This leads to another potentially unsolvable problem, which is that the Taliban is represented as a nearly faceless villain within the context of the film. On one hand, this makes some level of sense: 12 Strong takes place literally weeks after 9/11 from the perspective of Americans with barely any awareness of Afghanistan, its history and its people. On the other, it means that any time spent with the Taliban feels lazy and stereotypical, if not outright exploitative. The one scene where we watch a Taliban leader execute a defenseless woman for teaching her children basic math and reading is exceptionally gross and unnecessary. Knowing that the Taliban was responsible for 9/11 is enough reason, within the context of this film, to villainize them. Watching them execute innocent women is wildly unnecessary. At one point, Pena's character flinches while being presented with past footage of Taliban members stoning a woman, which is more than enough historical grounding to clarify how ruthless such terrorist groups are. Seeing as the Americans never come to the aid of the specific family whose matriarch is murdered, you could literally cut the vicious scene out of the film without changing anything but the runtime.

12 Strong skates on the surface from beginning to end. We get hints of the soldiers feeling slightly regretful that they leave their wives and children behind, just as there are hints that the wives and children aren't able to hide their heartbreak in spite of knowing what they signed up for, being married to soldiers or being fathered by them. The four big names in the film — though Rhodes gets far too little to do, unfortunately — are talented enough to not make this movie a total slog. However, they can't elevate an uninspired script too much, nor can the competently staged action sequences. 12 Strong suggests a fascinating true story, but one that did not have the potential for feature-film power./Film Rating: 4 out of 10