Review: 12 Strong Is a Story About Real-Life Heroes

Chris Hemsworth stars as Captain Mitch Nelson in 12 Strong. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Chris Hemsworth stars as Captain Mitch Nelson in 12 Strong. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

War movies often make for great cinema, but the success of a film often depends on the war. Great films have resulted from depictions of World War II and Vietnam, for example, because the former offers a chance to revel in America’s glory, while the latter offers an opportunity for directors to wallow in tragedy. It is harder, however, to approach those wars that offer neither clear-cut victory or defeat. The second war in Iraq, for example, offers only The Hurt Locker as a great film depicting that operation, and the still-waging war in Afghanistan has yet to result in an Apocalypse Now or The Bridge on the River Kwai. 12 Strong is not that film, being too much of a crowd-pleaser to reach for greatness, but it is an interesting one precisely because of how it handles a war that America is both unable to win and incapable of losing.

Based on the true story of the first American soldiers to fight against the Taliban after the attack by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center, 12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth as an army officer who leads a band of a dozen soldiers into the Afghan mountains so that they can find Taliban military targets for the air force to strike. This crew of soldiers, which includes Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) and Michael Pena (American Hustle), have to travel through the mountains on horseback and face Taliban soldiers on foot while negotiating with the various Afghan factions who oppose the Taliban rule, most prominently General Dostum (Navid Negahban), who later became the Vice President of Afghanistan.

This is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, and that fact alone is indicative of the type of movie this is. Despite working multiple times with Michael Bay, Bruckheimer generally does not make bad movies, but he makes very mainstream ones, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and its sequels. Bruckheimer does have a heartland type sensibility, and even in his best films like Black Hawk Down, he still offers enough explosions and action sequences to satisfy the types who like to watch big things blow up. There is additionally a sense of jingoism in the movie that is not entirely unwelcome because of the way the film approaches it. There is a subtext of ‘America is awesome!’ to the film, but not quite the moronic Michael Bay version where might makes right. The politics of the film are a bit more complex than that.

Watching Hemsworth gun down Taliban soldiers might be the selling point of 12 Strong, but the more interesting scenes are between him and Negahban, since they underscore part of the complexity of America’s war in Afghanistan. The soldiers must be as much diplomats as they are fighters, and navigating the conflicts between the various tribes is shown to be the area that is most precarious for them. Bombing is easy, but negotiations are hard. The action set pieces where bombs get dropped and guns get fired have all been depicted many times before, but where 12 Strong feels most original is whenever Hemsworth and Negahban sit down and talk. The movie never fully explores the nuances that it suggests, being focused more on depicting the action sequences, but it does deserve credit for the issues that it does raise.

12 Strong is not a film that deviates from what one would expect a Jerry Bruckheimer Afghanistan film starring Chris Hemsworth would be, and as such it is a satisfying endeavor that hints at a more complex, incisive portrait of what America has been doing there for almost two decades. It doesn’t reach for greatness, but settles for providing exactly what audiences want.

12 Strong
Warner Bros. Pictures
Now in theaters

3 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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