12 Strong Review: Just about average
An average war drama that has only a few worthwhile moments
Based on journalist Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book, Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong details the exploits of the American Special Forces unit by the name of Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA 595) in Afghanistan, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. ODA 595, with the assistance of the Northern Alliance factions, was one of the very first special combat teams sent to destabilise the Taliban. The film may not share the depth of such projects as Black Hawk Down or Green Zone, but there are some moments that are worth savouring. The battle scenes, though a tad over-the-top, do a decent job in conveying the sheer magnitude of the situation on the ground.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Navid Negahban
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) is on leave with his family when the twin towers are attacked by the Al-Qaeda. He returns for duty only to be told that he cannot join his old squad because of a prior request. After a senior member of the team puts his reputation on the line for Mitch, the boss relents. Some members of the special forces unit aren’t pleased about Mitch’s former request for reassignment. The partial squad say their goodbyes before heading to Afghanistan. Mitch, unlike the others, has no experience in actual combat. In spite of this predicament, his second-in-command, Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Shannon), has great belief in his leadership. The men join the rest of the force abroad. While the camaraderie and harmless banter go on, Mitch and Spencer go in for the briefing. The senior officers tell them that they have six weeks to touch base with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (leader of one of the factions of the Northern Alliance), gain his trust, and head on to Mazar-i-Sharif. Aerial support is their sole backup. Mitch contradicts them by saying that they have only three weeks for the operation, owing to bad weather. ODA 595 gets dropped into the treacherous, sub-zero, desert conditions, having to make it by foot thereafter. Several tense hours later they finally come face to face with the famous General Dostum, but the leader and his men are suspicious of their new American intruders.
A couple of obvious questions pop up in the narrative for me. How come no one on ODA 595 speaks Pashtun, Uzbek, or Tajik (languages employed by the various tribes of the land)? Only Hemsworth’s character speaks some Russian. Isn’t it standard procedure to send an interpreter along, or have a team member speak more than one of the languages being employed in the combat zone? The second question involves helmets: why is it that no American soldier can be spotted with one, even though they are heavily armed with military fatigues? I wonder if these two parts were in alignment with true events.
Some of the exchanges between Mitch and General Dostum (as they try sizing up one another’s true intentions) are interesting. While being overly simplistic and sentimental on occasion, their conversations (especially on the general’s part) reveal why they are where they are. There’s an impressive scene early on, in which Mitch and Dostum meet for the very first time. The American Special Forces Unit gets invited to eat with General Dostum and his men. Dostum automatically assumes that Spencer is the head of the small task force. After being corrected, the General says that he looks at everyone’s eyes (the Americans) and sees killers – except in the case of Mitch.
All the other parts of the story fall into boxes we’ve seen before: the initial distrust of the foreign allies, slowly making friends with the locals, the Americans making themselves out to be saviours, an incomplete understanding of the real ground situation, intelligence failures, etc. It seems highly implausible that half the team gets left behind temporarily when there aren’t enough of General Dostum’s horses to go around. As for the portrayal of the Taliban, one only gets to the see their savagery on display. How about they show the enemy strategise as well (we only get to see them attack and defend, but don’t get to witness the discussion of plans and counter offensives). Even the mawkish scenes involving the men’s families could have been made to look more realistic. The film isn’t strong enough to sustain its running time with ease, either. The war drama has some moments of redemption, no doubt, but it fails to bring the required depth to match other stellar efforts in the genre.