There’s a fairly interesting story underpinning Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, about the first military response to 9/11, declassified a few years ago and turned into a book by Doug Stanton, which was adapted here by screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig. As is often the case, however, the Hollywood treatment does a disservice to the very people it’s meant to honor by turning them into cutouts and cliches in generic action movies. There’s a lot of bombs and a lot of bullets in 12 Strong, but we don’t get much sense of the men engaged in these battles beyond the fact that they love their wives (they have pictures of them in their wallets and everything!) and are really hoo-rah eager to make Al-Qaeda pay for the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Chris Hemsworth plays Mitch Nelson (inspired by the real-life Mark Nutsch), the commander of a small special forces unit — from the Army’s highly decorated 5th Special Forces Group — tasked with helping to carry out operation Task Force Dagger. After the military dropped a shitton of bombs on Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, a unit of 12 men were inserted into Afghanistan to train hundreds of rebels and take the battle directly to Al-Qaeda (in reality, two units of 12 men were inserted, but that’s too many characters for one movie to keep up with, and 24 Strong doesn’t have the same ring).
The problems, however, were myriad: The operation took place less than a month after the World Trade Center attacks, so the military still had little intelligence to go on; the Northern Alliance was made up of a number of different factions that were not only fighting Al-Qaeda but among themselves; terrible weather conditions; a language barrier; difficulty in distinguishing between ally and enemy; and that unforgiving terrain. Al-Qaeda was hiding out in the mountains, and the enemy lurked at the end of all but un-passable trails where driving a convoy of soldiers into battle wasn’t exactly an option, hence the Horse Riders.
These 12 men on horseback had to resort to a kind of fighting that they were not experienced in (in fact, many had no experience at all riding horses). All they could take with them, basically, were AK-47s, and they were up against an enemy battling on their own home turf who also had the benefit of tanks, cannons, and rocket launchers left behind by the Soviets.
The odds weren’t exactly in favor of the Special Forces Unit, although they did have one major advantage: Their “warrior hearts.” And also, the scores of bombs the Air Force kept dropping on the terrorists (members of the Special Forces did have to get close enough to call in the coordinates).
Look: It was no doubt a harrowing experience, and Mark Nutsch and his men are undoubtedly American heroes (and they have been appropriately decorated as such). I honestly don’t want to take anything away from that by saying that the movie based on those experiences was remarkably generic. It’s like someone pulled out a war-movie blueprint, copied and pasted it, changed the names, and filmed it. It’s full of boilerplate dialogue, Hallmarkian sentiment, and even a speech from
Josh Duhamel Geoff Stults about how he appreciates that his commanding officer worries about killing people because “that’s what makes you human.”
It’s a bland war film wrapped in an American flag (and Hemsworth isn’t even American!) that also wastes the talents of Michael Shannon (whose role largely consists of grumbling after he hurts his back horseback riding) and Michael Peña, who doesn’t really do much of anything in 12 Strong. As though the deaths of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 weren’t incentive enough to kill Al-Qaeda, there’s also a manufactured villain, Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar) who — in the midst of war — decides to kill a female schoolteacher for teaching women how to read, in case you were wondering just how evil he is. Compounding the problems with 12 Strong is the fact that it’s a needless two hours and 15 minutes long, largely a slog bookended with scenes from the wives sending their husbands off to war. They’re not real people unless they have wives who love them, right? Again, without devaluing the efforts of the ODA 595, it also seems pyrrhic to be celebrating the battles that may have been the beginning of the end for Al-Qaeda, but that were also the beginning of a war with an ever-changing enemy that still has no real end in sight.