Review: 12 Strong

Score: C+

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rated: R

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.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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