In the wake of 9/11, the immediate reaction was that the United States must do something – anything – after being attacked. Before the quagmire of multiple wars, spread over close to two decades, there was the simple desire to teach the bad guys a lesson. 12 Strong occurs in this period following 9/11, when this sentiment was prevalent, and asks its audience to forget everything they’ve learned about these wars in the seventeen years since. 12 Strong revels in black-and-white morality in this overly simplistic look at a single operation that would’ve been outdated even a year after it took place.
12 Strong follows the first soldiers into Afghanistan after 9/11, a Special Forces group known as ODA 595. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) – who has never seen battle before – leads a group of eleven other men in trying to force the Taliban out of Mazar-I-Sharif. These dozen men team up with the Northern Alliance, in an operation that could potentially take out the Taliban.
Except this wasn’t the case. 12 Strong wants to revel in the victory of battle, when we’ve already lost the war. At one point, a character – seemingly looking into the future – even mentions to the soldier that, “If you leave, you will be cowards. If you stay, you will become our enemies.” 12 Strong wants to pretend these wars haven’t happened and also wants its characters to know exactly how this will all play out in the long run.
But 12 Strong also presents this as a necessary journey, without paying hardly any attention to the poor planning that went into such an endeavor. Several times, the film mentions that these soldiers don’t have tools essential to their goal, such as the right clothes, weapons, communications, or transportation, without ever making a point of it. Even the fact that they don’t have a translator on the ground to help their communicate with the Northern Alliance is completely shrugged off. 12 Strong might play all of this off as brave men succeeding in extraordinary circumstances, but again in hindsight, it’s the lack of preparation in getting this job done and the consequences of hasty actions that stand out.
Comprising the ODA 595 team is a great cast that is squandered in stock roles. As the oldest man on the team, Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (a completely underutilized Michael Shannon) spends most of the film on his back, after slipping a disc from riding a horse. Michael Peña, who knows how to stand out in an ensemble, has absolutely nothing to do and no character as Sgt. First Class Sam Diller. Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes role as Sgt. First Class Ben Milo mostly relies on a friendship he strikes up with an Afgahni child, and little else. Hemsworth, Peña, and Shannon’s back stories are little more than showing the loved ones they leave behind, whereas the nine other soldiers don’t even get that much.
The standout surprisingly is the only Afghani character the film spends much time with: David Negahban as General Dostum, leader of the Northern Front and the current Vice President of Afghanistan. Dostum is given one scene to explain his dedication to this fight and much like the twelve soldiers, why he risks everything to fight for what he believes is right, and it makes all the difference to the story. Whereas everyone other character is supposedly lead by an undefined sense of patriotism, the smallest amount of detail makes Negahban’s performance shine.
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, and written by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town), 12 Strong seems more emblematic of its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. 12 Strong is loud, abrasive, and brash – right in line with Bruckheimer’s past credits like Armageddon or the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Instead of taking care with this story and presenting it with any sort of nuance or character, 12 Strong often plays too much like a bad video game: frantic, disjointed, and devoid of nuance. For a war that has so many angles to consider, 12 Strong’s narrow-minded viewpoint and lack of larger picture perspective makes this into little more than a jingoistic fairy tale.