January has become something of a big release platform for new and wide releases of the war movie genre. Much like the horror genre, it now seems we can always bet on a war movie getting a big release here in January (this no doubt due to the success of Lone Survivor and American Sniper). This January the war movie is, 12 Strong or it’s longer title, 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers (12 Strong is a preferred title).
12 Strong takes place just after 9/11. America is devastated by the attacks and go to Afghanistan to strike back at Omasa Bin Laden and take on the Taliban. Task Force Dagger, is led by Captain Mitch Nelson (played by Chris Hemsworth) and are the first group to fight in the war in Afghanistan, the place where the movie describes, “Where empires go to die.” His company joins up with a general of the Northern Alliance (which has been broken up into separate factions) named General Dostum (played wonderfully by Navid Negahban). The pair finds themselves against overwhelming odds and a cultural divide that they all must overcome to defeat their common enemy.
Recently war movies seem to aspire to two different types of style. One is in the style of Saving Private Ryan where the movies tend to focus on characters facing the horrors of war and tend to be more anti-war in their nature. Mel Gibson’s recent movie, Hacksaw Ridge, falls in more in line with the Saving Private Ryan model of war film. Other types that have recently emerged are films in the style of Lone Survivor and American Sniper where the horrors of war are more secondary to showcasing acts of courage and heroism. 12 Strong falls more in line with the latter rather than the former. 12 Strong is a more optimistic and restrained war movie that feels more at home with movies like American Sniper and classic war films from the 1950s. Your enjoyment of 12 Strong will probably greatly depend on which kind of traditional style war movie you prefer.
For myself, 12 Strong is at its best when it is focusing on the thoughtful and well-rounded relationship between Mitch Nelson and General Dostum. Often, the Middle Eastern allies in movies like 12 Strong tend to get sidelined in favor of focusing solely on the American perspective (which in some cases tends to work better for the story being told). It was refreshing and surprising to see a large portion of this movie focused on the two men learning from each other, butting heads with one another, and fighting alongside one another.
General Dostum is all in all the most rounded character of the entire film who has a personal war to fight against the Taliban forces led by Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar). Dostum would taunt Razzan over the radio which helps elevate the personal conflict between the pair and create a real antagonistic figure in Razzan.
The rest of 12 Strong is as standard of a war movie that you will ever see. The side characters are your typical war movie characters, they crack some jokes, they all have their “type” (the funny guy, the tough guy, the smart guy) and some feel pretty interchangeable.
The action scenes are surprisingly restrained and while at times exciting they feel more like a thriller style of action rather than a war style of action. 12 Strong feels like it wants to be thrilling and exciting rather than horrific and installing a sense of dread. There is always a sense of geography and order to the battle scenes in 12 Strong. This makes the movie feel more enthralling rather than chaotic which makes 12 Strong feel more thriller-like. This is the directorial debut of Nicolai Fuglsig and I’m willing to bet that he would be better at directing a traditional action movie than helming war pictures.
There isn’t anything particularly egregious about 12 Strong but aside from the Mitch and Dostum relationship there isn’t a whole lot that stands out either. The war clichés aren’t executed in a noteworthy fashion and the movie really begins to lose narrative momentum by the third act. 12 Strong isn’t overly preachy or jingoistic but not particularly deep either. It lacks a performance of a Bradly Cooper in American Sniper and the intensity of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor. There were times where the movie is pretty exciting but for the most part, 12 Strong is a pretty generic war film. I got some enjoyment out of it but I find myself wondering how much I am really going to remember?