There’s something truly moving about witnessing modern U.S. soldiers riding horses into battle that recalls war films from another era. Sure, there is nothing romantic about armed conflict. But, in the days that followed 9/11, a dozen brave soldiers dropped into Afghanistan to begin the first wave of bringing justice for all who perished on that awful day. Their true story comes to life (after being declassified) in 12 Strong.
Chris Hemsworth stars as the real-life leader of the group that would become known as the Horse Soldiers. The actor, best known of course as Thor (soon to be seen in Avengers: Infinity War), is Captain Mitch Nelson. Much like the rest of the nation, and the world, he was completely caught off guard by the cowardly act of terrorists using commercial airplanes and slamming them into buildings that would cost thousands of lives. Nelson was ready to retreat to a desk job to be there for his growing family. The tragedy of that 2001 fall day changed his life, and millions of others.
12 Strong begins by encapsulating the sentiment of so many who volunteered for duty in the days following 9/11. Nelson is seen making a plea to his superior to reject his request for a “safer” position and in fact is seeking to be in the opposite. He wants to lead a team into Afghanistan and be the first to start the journey to justice. They are to land in country, hook up with the fractured Northern Alliance and coordinate the first stages of the attack on the Taliban (who were protecting Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama Bin Laden).
The film, from director Nicolai Fuglsig, is a fitting tribute to those brave men (and their Afghani counterparts). But, it fails to capture our attention without letting it go several moments throughout that costs it in the riveting department. If our description of that first act beginnings sounds a bit like a “long story short” detailing of an event, much of the film suffers from that same type of storytelling. It is not a long film, clocking in at just under two hours, but it feels convoluted in a way that no war movie should ever be accused of being. The other thing it suffers from is confusion.
Yes, as anyone who has any kind of experience in the Middle East can tell you, calling things complex in that region is too tame of a description. But, many a film has managed to figure out a means of getting its points across without losing the attention of its audience. The Northern Alliance, as history tells us, was made up of a slew of warlords. If there was one thing that they despised more than the Taliban, it was each other. How screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig lay the situation out that our soldiers found when they hit the ground in the region is more intricate than it needs to be. More time could have been spent on putting the spotlight on the titular soldiers and how each was making the ultimate sacrifice to serve their country. Then, we could have been more emotionally invested in what occurs on the screen as their battle plays out.
Instead, the viewer is compelled, but only because of what we already know from the situation heading in. Our country was attacked, and we were going after the government that was harboring those who orchestrated that horrible day.
Hemsworth continues to show that he is a talent that can carry a film without having to be sporting that hammer. We certainly get his backstory and how Captain Nelson serves as our eyes and ears of this mission, which is the most unique hybrid of justice and vengeance. But, we just wish he was given a more astute script and edited together film that should have felt more like Dunkirk in pacing and power less like Pearl Harbor. Then again, if you pay attention to those opening credits, one can see why it possess a similar tone as the latter… it is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. The man that is no stranger to giving audiences thrills, unfortunately, misses the mark in that department with his latest.
The supporting cast, especially Michael Pena and Michael Shannon, do their best with the material given. Each keenly knows the importance of telling this recently declassified tale.
In the days following the Twin Towers collapsing, America wanted justice. It was topic “A” through “Z” for a nation hurting badly. Little did we know that the first wave of evil being accountable would arrive in the form of only a dozen men on horseback, partnering with a local outmanned and outgunned force. The odds against their success were high. But, something extraordinary happens when you have “right” on your side. That aspect, 12 Strong shows brilliantly. Being on the correct side of history is always a joy to witness play out on the big screen. In that sense, 12 Strong is solid. Sadly, those men and us as a country, deserved a wee bit more.