By: Arlene Allen
I normally steer clear of war movies because they are usually tragic (who seriously expects a war story with a happy ending?), but I went into this film because of its incredible cast (Chris Hemsworth, Michael Pena, Michael Shannon, Allison King and many others) and because I researched the story that inspired the film. I’m glad I gave this film the chance it deserved – the performances are as dynamic as expected and the story is one every American should know about our Army’s Special Forces, also known as the “Green Berets.” These men, who within weeks, responded to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Green Berets and AFSOC, because of the actions of twelve men, were able to take over Afghanistan and allowed other Special Forces and the rest of the conventional military to begin the more publicly visible war.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) returns to his base to reinstate his command. He had just accepted a desk job, but after the Twin Towers were hit, Nelson wanted into the upcoming fight. Unfortunately, his commanding officer won’t have it. So, one of Nelson’s former team members, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), tears up his retirement papers and convinces his superior to give Nelson his shot in the field. The problem is that Nelson has never seen combat and everyone is concerned he will have no skill when faced with real action. However, Spencer wins the day and Nelson and his men are shipped off to Afghanistan where Nelson impresses the field commanders (Rob Riggle and William Fichtner) with his knowledge and unconventional approach. Therefore, he is the man assigned to lead his twelve men into the desert and rid Afghanistan of the Taliban.
Nelson and his team meet up with a warlord who has agreed to help the Americans with the coup. General Dostum (Navid Negahban) is a wizened, tough as hell warrior who lost his family and way of life to the Taliban so he is only too happy to use the Americans as a means to his own ends – destroy Mullah Razzan (Numan Akar) and free his beloved homeland from the unspeakable evils the Taliban has wrought. The only way to travel efficiently through the country’s rough terrain though is via horseback and, thus, the history of the Horse Soldiers began.
Everyone gives incredible and heartfelt performances. Chris Hemsworth, after showing his comedic side in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, is amazing as Mitch Nelson. He portrays Nelson as smart, fiercely determined and a warrior in his own right. He also has his sensitive side, which we get to see early on in his interactions with his wife (played by real life spouse Elsa Pataky) and child (Marie Wagenman) and later in the distress he feels after his first kill. Shannon is stellar as Spencer, who never falters in his belief in Nelson or his abilities. Michael Pena also shines as Nelson’s buddy Sam, who comes to form a unique bond with a young member of Dostum’s troops. All of the men are portrayed as very human, with realistic problems and fears and yet are resilient and brave. I got the feeling that this was a project that meant something to the entire cast emotionally because these performances were so visceral.
The cinematography is fabulous – wide sweeping shots of mountains and deserts (shot in New Mexico) are appropriately epic. Nicolai Fuglsig, in his American directorial debut, brings with him his experience as a photojournalist in war torn Kosovo. He knows what war looks like and makes no attempt to “prettify” or simplify anything. (A note for the squeamish – the film can be quite graphic at times, thus the R rating.) Of course, with Jerry Bruckheimer on board the action can be deafening and my only major complaint is that the diegetic sound drowned out the men’s’ conversations. The film is based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton so if you are interested in checking out the film’s authenticity, look into it.
I’ve heard some (unwarranted) criticism that the film is politically polarizing, but I don’t find this to be an issue. In the montage that leads up to the beginning of the story, it seems clear that the filmmakers aren’t setting out to lay blame at anyone’s door or make this a film with an agenda. As for the other criticism, that it’s pro-military – nah. All I can say about that is, yes, it shows our military in the best light possible and I felt that what these twelve men did was nothing short of incredible as well as heroic and bordering on the miraculous. 12 Strong works on every level; as a story, as a look at war and human reactions to it, as a commemoration, as cinematic piece of art and as a terrific action film with real heroes instead of superheroes.
Overall analysis: A film well worth seeing.