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.”
Am I supposed to watch this or jack off to it? Just once I wish one of these filmmakers would have the balls to just make a two-hour “gearing up” montage with jargon dialogue (“Let’s rendezvous at the evac site and then pop smoke”), like they clearly want. (“Gearin’ Up And Crackin’ Wise, this summer from Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg…”)
Neither does the film differentiate between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, except insomuch as Hemsworth’s Mitch explains that “if Al-Qaeda is the brains, the Taliban is the muscle” during a briefing.
Numan Acar plays the lead villain, Mullah Razzan of the Taliban, who we first meet when he executes a woman for teaching girls in front of three of her bawling students. “The Prophet forbids the educating of girls over the age of 8,” Razzan lectures, his pistol still smoking, complete with a close-up shot of the bloody hole in the woman’s forehead. That he managed not to rip a fetus out of the woman’s stomach and eat it while screaming “This is for Allah!” feels like restraint.
Some boot polisher films offer, if nothing else, an insightful and/or attractive portrait of male group dynamics. Last year’s Only The Brave, for instance, despite its gristly truck commercial aesthetic, does a fantastic job evoking that feeling of what it’s like to belong, to know you have people, and that those people “have your back” — to be a part of something bigger than yourself. 12 Strong‘s attempts to depict male bonding are so creakingly lame that you wonder if anyone involved has ever had a friend. Thad Luckinbill from the Young And The Restless plays Vern Michaels (Thad also co-produced the film, along with his brother, Trent Luckinbill), who really gets “the business” from his colleagues, who call him “Britney Spears” on account of his long blond hair (lol!). Before a firefight, a sniper asks his spotter “Who do you think wins in a fight, Queen Elizabeth or Margaret Thatcher?” You know, typical bro stuff.
Ideally, a film like this needs filmmakers who understand both the male team dynamic, like Peter Berg, and grasp some of the larger geopolitical issues, like Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana). Instead 12 Strong has Nicolai Fuglsig and Jerry Bruckheimer, who seems to have attempted once again to make an amusement park ride of a movie, only this time there’s a scary Muslim guy head that breathes fire before the big drop and no Nic Cage.
The one interesting character in the film is Navid Negahban as Abdul Rashid Dostum (current Vice President of Afghanistan), who not only gets the film’s only insightful lines (“If you leave you will be cowards. If you stay you will become our enemies”) but also seems to have an actual personality. When Mitch asks for proof that the camp he’s about to call an air strike on are actually Taliban, Dostum calls them up on his walkie-talkie. “Razzan,” he barks into the radio. “The Americans are here to kill you, you dog.”
I’m not sure how that constitutes proof that they’re Taliban, but at least it feels like a human moment, which is more than you can say for the rest of the film, whose every interaction feels as cheap and phony as the green screened plane shots and explosions. With a little critical thinking, you might also wonder who should properly get credit for winning the battle, the Afghani militia who actually knew where the enemy were, or the 12 Americans on horseback, 11 of whom had never ridden a horse before. In the film, we see the Afghans, but they’re way in the background, pumping their Kalashnikovs up and down in the air while the camera gets lost in Chris Hemsworth’s solemn blue eyes.
Lacking an understanding of the context of who or why the big military men shoot, 12 Strong is essentially a celebration of Big Men Who Shoot. Which is not only kind of pathetic — something that belongs doodled on a Trapper Keeper rather than on a big screen — it cheapens the heroic things its subjects actually did. It’s a kind of groupie’s dilemma: If you’ll sleep with anyone in a uniform, why am I special? As bad as 2018 is, 12 Strong is a hoary throwback to an even worse time. Never forget… how much the early aughts sucked.