12 Strong Film Review
Pays tribute to the soldiers while doing nothing for the audience.
Nicolai Fulgsig’s 12 Strong turns warfare into Hollywood shootouts. Filmmaker Francois Truffaut points out that it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because the filmmakers turn war into something fun, a sense of adventure you’d want to be a part of. I’d say it’s impossible to make an average anti-war movie, because I wouldn’t want to go near the drug-addled trip down the river in Apocalypse Now (1979) or the oppressive boredom in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2006). Fulgsig and co., however, manage to show that war is about getting together with your buddies to shoot and carpet bomb the bad guys, while your beautiful wives wait to jump your bones the second you get home.
Based on a fascinating true story (here turned into a recruitment ad minus the voiceover) from Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers (2009), the movie begins with a series of the Taliban’s attacks in America, shown via news footage. We settle on Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) at home with his wife Jean (Elsa Pataky) and daughter, who’s getting ready for school. Her cartoons are interrupted by the haunting image of the burning towers and we cut to Nelson’s face as he watches.
Seeing Hemsworth without his Thor costume got me thinking about his movie star appeal. We live in an age where male movie stars are ranked by their muscle mass (hence the bowling-ball-biceped movie star king Dwayne Johnson)—gone are the days of Marlon Brando’s rugged look of defeat or James Stewart’s lanky everyman appeal—and so Hemsworth, even without the costume, fits the bill. He also has a winning smile and a confident appeal that made me feel like I was in the presence of a movie star—for a few seconds. His big moment, one of our most widely known actors’ responses to the defining moment of the 21st century, is stock standard: a falling smile and widening eyes.
Refusing to finish his leave, Mitch requests Lieutenant Bowers (Rob Riggle) to put him right in the action on a covert mission. Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sam Diller (Michael Peña) join up, which leads to the goodbye sequence.
Why we have to watch every duty-bound man say a forced goodbye to his perfect family unit, I don’t know. Diller’s wife Lisa (Lauren Myers) is aggressively cleaning an oven when he parts from her, and she withholds sex so she knows he’ll come back. Mitch’s wife assures him she knows what she signed up for as a soldier’s wife. Hal’s wife is sad, too. There’s nothing in this sequence that adds to the drama of the story or the development of the characters. It’s so painfully signatory, it’s like an advertisement instead of narrative drama.
Arriving in Afghanistan, the men team up with General Dostum (Navid Negahban), which leads to some of the movie’s most captivating sequences. Though Ted Tally and Peter Craig’s screenplay hurries everything along, the obstacles facing do build towards the ensuing drama. No one speaks the right languages, the men can’t ride horses, and they’re going deeper into the desert, where the Taliban are clustered like heavily armed wolfpacks. These obstacles are immediately reduced to little more than narrative points. The horse riding problem is addressed with one stumble as Sam brings his horse too close to the cliff face and the language issue is non-existent. There’s an interesting dynamic between Dostum and the Mitch as well as some intriguing discussion on the Afghanistan’s torrid history, but the movie doesn’t want to be about any of these things. It just needs to acknowledge them.
The movie is being praised for its action sequences; popular Youtuber Chris Stuckmann holds them in high esteem against the movie’s lacklustre character work. When I think about the storming of the beach in Saving Private Ryan (1998) or the way the smoke gradually clears on the battlefield in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), I can’t say Hemsworth ducking behind a rock and poking his gun out to shoot is anything memorable. The war scenes don’t feel like war because they play out like shootouts in a lesser action movie. Every near-death is rendered with a slow motion fall to the ground, a still body, followed by a few coughs and a rejoice as another American cast-member doesn’t die, while 10 or so of Dostum’s men are dispatched like bad guys in a Nic Cage actioner. But it’s okay, Dostum assures Mitch in another scene, because his men are warriors. Whatever that means.
12 Strong isn’t a terrible movie. It’s terribly perfunctory. It might be unfair to hold comparisons with classic war movies by accomplished directors (this is only Fulgsig’s second feature) but if you’re going to make a movie about war, you can’t screw it up. It’s too big of a subject and we’ve seen too much of the best. While it might pay homage to the movie’s subjects, this one does nothing for the audience.
Feature image via maccabeesociety.com