Impressively staged and shot, “12 Strong” is an engaging adaptation of true events that served as our nation’s first military response to terror in the days following the 9/11 attacks.
Built around a fascinating story that’s still relatively unknown to the American public, the film’s cast and crew effectively transport audiences into the midst of what the U.S. Military officially defines as “unconventional warfare.” “12 Strong” provides a glimpse at what the challenges of such situations looked like in the post-9/11 era, and that glimpse feels authentic.
It has some issues, and it doesn’t redefine the bar for modern wartime action films, nor does it aspire to do so. Rather, it sets out to honor the service of the real-life soldiers who carried out these missions in a heartfelt and meaningful way, and for the most part, it is successful.
What’s it about?
“12 Strong” tells the story of ODA (Operational Detachment Alphas) 595, a 12-man team of U.S. Special Forces operatives who volunteered immediately after the 9/11 attacks to be part of America’s first response against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan.
The mission, codenamed Task Force Dagger, delivered the team into the steep mountains and brutal temperature extremes of the region via helicopter, rendezvous with deposed Northern Alliance leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negaban), and help his followers wrest control of the area back from the Taliban by serving as spotters for U.S. airstrikes to support Dostum’s ground forces.
If that sounds difficult in the broad strokes, add in the fact that this Special Forces team only gets a fraction of the prep time unconventional warfare missions usually require, the lack of trust on either side between the Americans and Dostum’s people, and the fact that the terrain demands ODA 595 to do something American soldiers had not done since the War in the Pacific in 1942: ride into battle on horseback, thus earning the moniker “The Horse Soldiers.”
Solid debut directing effort
What first-time feature film director Nicolai Fuglsig really does well in “12 Strong” is convey just how challenging the mission turned out to be once the group had boots on the ground and really grasped what they were up against.
Fuglsig’s use of location is a significant part of the film’s success in this regard. Very little, if any, of “12 Strong” looks shot on a sound stage, and Fuglsig’s battle sequences in particular drive home in an authentic way just how difficult fighting in that place must have been, even with U.S. air power dropping death from the skies.
Watching Fuglsig’s vision of how this all played out is hypnotic. He effectively captures the scope and intensity of these pitched battles, as well as a measure of the political stakes and the delicacy of the alliances both in and out of combat.
“12 Strong” does suffer from pacing issues. It feels long at 130 minutes despite the ground it covers and the span of time it compresses.
More importantly, however, the film is held back by a script that underserves its main characters and the talented performers playing them. None of the principals here really escape the confines of war movie genre archetypes because the screenplay doesn’t ask them to at any point.
If you enjoy well-staged and authentic feeling wartime action films, none of that should really matter, and “12 Strong” will succeed for you. But the film’s appeal should extend beyond even genre fans thanks to the story at the film’s heart.
It’s a story from a dark time in our nation’s history that deserves to be told, now that it can be. Thankfully, “12 Strong” does just enough right to do right by that story and the soldiers who lived it in real time.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig.
Running time: 130 minutes
Rated R for war violence and language throughout.