’12 Strong’ Could Have Been Even Stronger
The new drama “12 Strong” tells an interesting and compelling war story, perhaps one of the more positive to emerge from U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan in the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although many of the names have been changed and some dramatic license has been taken for the film, it is the story told in author Doug Stanton’s 2009 book “Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.” It celebrates an elite U.S. Special Forces unit, the first to venture inside the country after 9/11 and whose efforts originally were classified.
And while “12 Strong” is a bit of an odd bird at times -- it plays narratively a bit like a book, lacking the normal ebbs and flows of a mainstream movie -- it nonetheless is a commendable tribute to these men and a relatively entertaining viewing experience.
After quickly refreshing our minds of terrorist attacks that came in the years before 9/11, the movie picks up on that morning, with Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) learning about the attacks on the World Trade Center from the TV as he spends time with his wife, Jean (Elsa Pataky), and their young daughter. The men in the unit that until very recently was under his command -- he is in the midst of a transfer to a less-dangerous gig in the Army -- are conducting drills in a river under the temporary leadership of Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and do not learn of what has transpired until they are done.
Soon, all parties are together at a base, the unit wanting to go to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, and Mitch wanting to be reinstated as their leader. After being shot down by a hard-nosed superior portrayed by comic actor Rob Riggle (even though Riggle is a veteran of the Marine Corps, it’s a little hard to take him seriously here), Mitch, with Hal’s help, gets what he wants, as does the unit.
Screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig do not do the best of jobs explaining how it came to be that Mitch, who has no live-combat experience, is the leader of a unit that, we are told, earned glory during Operation: Desert Storm. However, Mitch’s inexperience is not an issue for his men, save, perhaps, for Sam Diller (Michael Pena), probably because he exudes smartness and calm, as well as a ton of self-confidence.
Their mission is to embed with the band of fighters led by a warlord in the region with no love for the Taliban, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), to help them get close enough to the enemy to call in bombing runs. However, when the two forces meet, it is obvious Dostum would rather deal with Hal than Mitch, completely ignoring the latter. Dotsum says that Hal -- and others in the unit -- possess “killer eyes,” the warlord immediately sniffing out Mitch’s greenness.
The dynamic between Mitch and Dotsum is the biggest narrative thread running throughout “12 Strong,” no doubt a difficult tale to tell, especially with the unit getting split in two when Dostum provides only six horses for the 12 men. Hal stays back at a makeshift headquarters -- dubbed “The Alamo” despite historical connotations -- and commands Bravo company, while Mitch and five other press on as the Alpha squad.
Hemsworth is his usual dependable self as the leading man, while Shannon is his usual borderline-terrific self in a supporting role. Negahban, an Iranian actor you’ll recognize from films including “American Sniper” and shows such as “Homeland” and “24,” makes an impression as the complex and measured Dotsum.
Unlike the men it champions, “12 Strong” isn’t quite all that it could have been, but it has enough going for it to recommend seeing it.