12 Strong Movie Review
The real shame with the glut of war movies following American Sniper is that Hollywood seems to want the brand and the profit, but has put very little effort into actually making good movies out of some of these, much less good war movies. Thankfully, though far from perfect, 12 Strong mostly sticks the landing where so others have failed.
Based on the book Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong tells the account of the team of US Special Forces soldiers sent into Afghanistan after September 11 to link up with the Northern Alliance and bring the fight to the Taliban, and actually sticks to what happened to an impressive degree. The book Horse Soldiers is one of the most interesting accounts of one of the War on Terror’s most daring chapters, and it’s clear the filmmakers did their homework, down to the fact small details from the book have been adapted to screen.
Also in 12 Strong’s favor is that source material aside, it tells an interesting story in an engaging way. I’ve read Horse Soldiers, I knew full well what was going to happen in the movie, and yet 12 Strong has me on the edge of my seat in certain scenes. It also manages to get the right mixture of chest-thumping jingoism – for those who may have forgotten just how savage the Taliban was, 12 Strong will take the time to remind you – while also being self-aware enough to point out that what’s being pitched in the movie as a “short victorious war” in Afghanistan will be anything but that.
It also helps that 12 Strong avoids another of the big pitfalls that have wrecked several recent war movies, bad casting. Be it Marky Mark, Miles Teller, Shia LeBeouf, or literally anybody cast in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, too many times, the actors cast in these movies don’t have the chops for a toothpaste commercial, much less a war movie. So it’s a pretty big deal that 12 Strong manages to deliver a solid ensemble cast with some great standout performances.
Chris Hemsworth, fresh off of Thor: Ragnorok, gives his first real non-Thor standout performance since Rush a few years back, playing the daring but inexperienced Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson with a winsome mixture of quiet confidence and the occasional outburst. Navid Nagabahn meanwhile nearly steals the show as General Dostum, the leader of the Northern Alliance who has been fighting in Afghanistan for decades, merely swapping his foes from the Soviets to the Taliban. The relationship between the two as they but heads, argue over tactics and limited resources and come up with a plan to take down their mutual enemies forms the focus of the movie, and it’s an interesting angle to take with the story. We’ve also got solid performances from Michael Shannon, William Fichtner, Michael Pena, Rob Riggle, Said Taghmaoui and Trevante Rhodes.
Honestly, one of the most striking things about the movie is how it’s directed, as it avoids any of the stylistic pitfalls that have dragged down many other war movies. Nicolai Fuglsig, making his feature film debut with 12 Strong, was a war reporter previously, and it really makes a difference in how the film looks and has been executed. Everything from the equipment to the action scenes are wildly different from how 90 percent of most movies about the War on Terror, and it’s to 12 Strong’s benefit, as it looks different from most other modern war movies.
It’s more realistic too, from small details like equipment to bigger one’s like combat injuries, and even avoids some of the more egregious errors in staging action scenes, like bottomless mags. The most unrealistic thing in the movie is that the hand grenades still explode instead of fragmenting, and I’m willing to write that off as a cinematic flourish.
12 Strong isn’t perfect, but it’s a damned sight better than most of the post-American Sniper war movies Hollywood has cranked out these past few years. It’s directed well, and does some things differently other war movies could take notes on, has some solid performances, manages to deliver a tight action film while retaining some subtext without drowning in it. For those of you looking for a good war film, 12 Strong stands and delivers. Here’s hoping Hollywood takes notes, and moviegoers vote with their wallets on this one.