Written by Aaron Radcliff:
If I were to make a list of my ten favorite movies, there’s at least three spots guaranteed to go to war movies with Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers taking up two of the top three. What can I say? I really love war movies. I love the action, the comradery shown, and the spectacle of combat on display while disregarding the fact that war is, in fact, a horrific thing that results in pain for those far braver than I could ever be; enduring it all and the tragic toll on human life…but you gotta admit that the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan was pretty cool.
Alright, maybe trying to justify a love of the war genre while trying to dance around the politics of how we get the inspiration for these movies isn’t the best thing to do. But hey, he we are and this is the USA. We love our troops, we love our guns, and by God we love our war movies.
12 Strong tells the story of ODA 595, a group of 12 Special Forces soldiers in their fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan following September 11th. As part of their mission, they must team up with General Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Northern Alliance in order to liberate the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. With already incredibly high odds against them, ODA 595 must also traverse the Afghan mountains and fight on horseback, which was the main selling point of the movie.
You would think given how hard the marketing pushed the idea of riding horseback into battle that it would be focused on more, but it’s honestly not. At the beginning we get a brief, “Oh. How unconventional. Oh well. Tally ho,” and that’s it. The horses become just another piece of equipment, which I honestly liked. The circumstances are interesting, but the main story is the campaign to liberate the city, not the horses. Sounds obvious but we all know at least one person who thought the horses should’ve gotten top billing.
I should also say that the film is the story of the whole three week journey ODA 595 embarked on, not just the battle for Mazar. This gives some fascinating insight into just how the U.S. proceeded with their first initial campaign and also showed the differing tactics between the American and Afghan fighters. We see the differing tactics and viewpoints for much of the film and that leads to the best (and honestly only) character building in the movie.
Like I said before, I like the comradery shown in war movies. What makes the ones I listed above so great is we get a dive into the lives and relationships of the soldiers and how they grow and evolve throughout the course of their time in Hell. In this, we don’t really get that. Sure, we see how they have each others’ backs and how they’re all friends with each other, but we don’t explore enough with them past the surface. However, the story between Captain Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and General Dostum (Navid Negahban) is fascinating. One is green as broccoli when it comes to combat while the other is a seasoned killer. One has been trained to fight and lead as a member of the world’s greatest fighting force, and the other…not so much, despite being an adept fighter. The conflicts and misunderstandings between the two drives the story between the action sequences where the remaining character development flops or is unexplored. Sure, it’s cliché, but it works.
As for the action, it is very well done. Each sequence is brief enough to get the heart pumping without getting too cluttered and unintelligible and the climactic battle outside of Mazar is the explosion to the powder keg we’d waited the whole movie for. Director Nicolai Fuglsig did a great job with filming these sequences, and I’d attribute some of that to his time covering the Kosovo War as a photographer. And with the movie being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, you know there’s going to be big action sequences.
Outside of that, it’s a very by-the-numbers war movie. We introduce the premise, we see the characters, insert gunfire and explosions, and we’re done.
At the end of the day, 12 Strong is good albeit samey. It has the same vibe and story beats as most of the post-9/11 war movies. While the action was great, it could’ve done with a 15 minute trim to the runtime and explore the characters a little more. A petty gripe, but it’s what keeps this as a good movie instead of a great one. Even with that in mind, the story behind this movie is fascinating and it is pretty damn cool watching them ride into combat on horseback.
Score: 7 out of 10
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures