The title of the film 12 Strong reveals its primary concern. This is the mostly true story of twelve brave American soldiers who, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, were dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan to work with the Afghan army (most of whom were mounted cavalry) against the Taliban. The film clearly has a great deal of admiration for its subjects, which is possibly its greatest strength, but is most definitely also the cause of its greatest flaws.
The narrative is reductively straight forward. There are good guys and bad guys. The Taliban are depicted murdering women for teaching their daughters past the age of eight. The treatment of women is consistently made to be the main complaint against the Taliban. That and 9/11 of course. The American women are meanwhile depicted as being safely back home baking cookies for the kids and waiting for the boys to come home from defending their freedom. The warlord who has allied with the Americans assures the audience that he has a great deal of respect for women, but there are almost none to be seen in the narrative.
The Taliban all cover their faces (except for their sinister leader) whilst the Afghan forces don’t. This means we needn’t feel complicated as they are mown down in droves by our heroes. There is one scene dedicated to Chris Hemsworth’s Captain Mitch Nelson contemplating his actions, but this isn’t picked up again and only one of his compatriots seems to share his concern. Michael Shannon has one line about the uneasy relationship between being at home and at the front, but this is no Hurt Locker. The men will all turn out fine, rest assured.
There’s no room here for any complexity or thoughtfulness. The lines are clearly drawn with no grey areas. Consequently there’s a jingoistic heart to the film. There’s no mention of the American training and equipment that the Taliban and Al Qaeda received to fight the Russians in the decades prior. There’s no resentment of American interventionism from the troops they ally with. There’s potential here to tell a tragic story of constantly switching sides and an endless cycle of violence. Instead, there is one really evil guy who, once killed, will leave America successfully avenged and the good warlord will have the upper hand in the region.
However the film also struggles to develop a straightforward narrative, as most of the soldiers are interchangeable sardonic types who offer the odd “well this turned out just peachy” before fearlessly charging into battle. There’s some good natured joshing amongst the men which certainly serves well as comedic relief, but there’s no attempt to develop any of the men. This is possibly due to the film’s reluctance to give any of them significant flaws. This is no Lawrence of Arabia, the eponymous character of which slowly turned savage and cruel in his pursuit of glory and adventure.
As you’d expect, Michael Shannon is a tremendous presence and Michael Peña is charming. Navid Negahban as the allied general Abdul Rashid Dostum has a quiet dignity that made him very entertaining to watch. Otherwise, some excellent actors are given very little to do.
There are, of course, the action scenes. This film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and consequently there are all the massive explosions and prolonged gunfights you would expect. This is heroic, exciting action, not the gritty kind. Any sense of realism or tension is lost in these over the top fire fights. The horrors of war are panned past very quickly. Unfortunately due to a lack of style or investment in these characters the fights become very dull.
12 Strong refuses to interrogate its subject matter. It’s a film of hero-worship but not particularly creative or joyous in its telling. It’s certainly an interesting story but one that deserved a better movie.
2 / 5