Since September 11, 2001, we've had countless films both about that day and the subsequent War on Terror. While we've had plenty of good and bad movies since then, 12 Strong is stuck firmly in the middle. It's nowhere near good enough to vault itself into the top tier of films on the subjects (United 93, Zero Dark Thirty), but it's too skilled to be outright dismissed. Like too many movies, it's a missed opportunity.
Based on a declassified true story, 12 Strong is the story of the first infantry that made its way into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, trying to dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Though the battles they won were remarkable, especially considering they were outgunned and outnumbered, watching this in 2018 feels hollow, considering our troops are still fighting over there with no confident exit strategy.
Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, a young, intelligent leader who irks the top brass since he's never seen combat himself. Of course, Nelson proves himself trustworthy, smart and effective time and time again. His group teams up with General Abdul Rostam (Navid Negahban), leader of one faction of the splintered Northern Alliance.
While the film seems to be going for the same hoo-ra vibe of movies in this vein, it undercuts that (unintentionally, I believe), by showing just what a cluster the early days of the conflict were. Terrible reception and weak GPS signals led to missed airstrikes. Packages with crucial gear were dropped at incorrect locations, leading to locals grabbing what they could and selling to soldiers at a significant mark-up. And the film tries to have it both ways, giving us a scene where the leader of a group of Taliban fighters (Fahim Fazli) executes a woman for teaching her daughters, but then reminds us that some people are fighting with the Taliban because they've tortured and killed their families. It also tries to provide context, via General Rostam, that victory in Afghanistan is impossible, as conquerors and invaders have failed to learn throughout history.
Even with this mixed messaging, the movie isn't even visually interesting. Plenty of ambitious directors have failed at movies about our recent conflicts in the Middle East (and adjacent wars in Africa), but at least they were from filmmakers with style. But Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish photojournalist and commercial director, makes the battle scenes good and loud, but with no sense of geography or space. The movie goes through all the requisite goodbyes to crying wives and kids, as well as the camaraderie of the soldiers, and even the requisite "Don't you die on me!" speech to an injured brother. I expected more from a script by Oscar winner Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Hunger Games).
12 Strong has a memorable story to tell but does it in an unmemorable way. It wastes a talented cast in an indistinguishable chapter from our endless war in Afghanistan. Everyone and everything here deserves better.