The idea behind 12 Strong seems to be that telling the story of some special forces badasses who helped the Northern Alliance roust the Taliban from Mazar-I-Sharif at the beginning of the Afghanistan War will be rousing enough to make us forget… well, pretty much everything that came before and afterward, from letting the Taliban move in in the first place to a disastrous Iraq war to ISIS to Donald Trump. Does that mean these men don’t deserve their place in history? Perhaps not, but this movie celebrates such a narrow positive without acknowledging the whole that it ends up being emblematic of exactly the kind of myopic, shortsighted, simplistic ooh-rah football game thinking that led the US to f*ck up Afghanistan so spectacularly in the first place. It’s hard to trust it to tell the parts of the story we don’t know when it’s so bad at contextualizing the parts we do.
The heroes may be deserving, but the story does them a severe disservice by feeling like a celebration of the lone victory of the Donald Rumsfeld era, with no acknowledgement of the debacle that era turned out to be or why. That the 12 men of the title succeeded with the odds stacked against them wasn’t heroic in a vacuum; it was heroic in part because Rumsfeld, through his sheer incompetence, stacked those odds against them. Even the book on which this movie was based — Horse Soldiers, which is a much better title — had to add an epilogue that “the Taliban once again control large portions of Afghanistan.” And that was in 2009.
You can’t just tell one part of a story while pretending the rest doesn’t exist. It’d be like making a fawning biopic of Benedict Arnold, the heroic patriot, and then putting the part where he turns traitor in fine print. (Oops, I may have just given Dinesh “The Democrats Were Pro-Slavery, Actually” D’Souza an idea for his new book).
From the already overly simplistic sounding book comes this movie, executive produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a former Jeb Bush supporter who seems to want nothing more than to party like it’s 2002. Historical analysis aside, even if you’d parachuted into the theater from the early aughts and knew nothing of politics or the future, 12 Strong still wouldn’t be very good. In fact, the closest thing it has to a redeeming quality is that you can hate it irrespective of politics; it’s objectively bad.
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, 12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth as Captain Mitch Nelson, who, we’re told, went from wet-behind-the-ears new guy to war hero in Northern Afghanistan in the early days of 2002. The hunky Hemsworth certainly has the chiseled jaw and cerulean eyes of the ’50s cheesecake dreamboat he’s meant to be here, but there’s one problem: his American accent. It’s… very bad. He seems to be producing the sound from his Adam’s apple (possibly as an overcorrection from Australian, which generally comes from just above the top teeth), and his words come out sounding like some tortured antipodean yinzer, with long Os pinched off at the ends. Awlroight goys it’s toyme ta kick ayass overr hee-er. It gets worse whenever he has to bark orders, which is about 95% of his dialogue in 12 Strong.
The film opens with a montage of Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombings to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania to the U.S.S. Cole. That there was a pattern of attacks going back almost 10 years before 9/11, and then when it happened, our most elite special forces unit still showed up in country with not a single person speaking the local language and caught off guard by the fact that they’d have to ride horses (which is to say, having no idea how our closest allies in the area actually fought, against our acknowledged greatest threat) is a damning indictment of pretty much the entire national security apparatus, if not the culture as a whole. But if you’re expecting 12 Strong to acknowledge that, you’re Brucking up the wrong tree. The montage is there to communicate “those stinkin’ Taliban had it coming” and absolutely nothing else.
9/11 happens, and we get a montage of Spielberg Face shots of the principals staring at the twin towers on TV, followed by five minutes of nauseating home front clichés. Hemsworth’s Mitch Nelson has a Latina wife (later referred to by one of Mitch’s crew as “your little jalapeño”), Michael Peña’s Sam Diller wants to have sex with his special lady one last time but gets denied (“I want you to have something to come home to,” she says nonsensically). Michael Shannon’s Hal Spencer gets the silent treatment from his wife and kids for leaving them again, and in a moment of reflection, one of the team members ruminates, “Isn’t crazy that all we want is to get in the fight, but to do it we have to break our families’ hearts?”
And that’s about as deep as 12 Strong ever gets. The characters’ reactions to the events around them range from “Let’s go get ’em” to “Not today, bro.” It’s a classic bit of uniform fetishizing that lacks the insight and restraint of superior boot polishing, as seen in the films of Clint Eastwood or Peter Berg. In fact, the boys scarcely say anything that doesn’t feel ripped from a Brad Thor novel. As they gear up for a fight early on, just after watching videos of the Taliban stoning to death a pregnant woman (this is an actual scene in the film, I am not exaggerating) one guy says “Capture is not an option,” while another adds “If I die, I’m dying with my boots on.”