In writing this 12 Strong review, it is hard to imagine that it has been nearly 17 years since the events of 9/11. As 12 Strong began playing, I found myself realizing that the first group of children born post 9/11 are now starting drive and have no memory of that day.
I feel old.
Needless to say, 9/11 and the war and politics which proceeded it have had a major impact on film. From Oliver Stone’s W. and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight to Kathryn Bigelow’s double whammy of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the events of that day have deeply impacted the narratives we tell. For a generation of filmmakers, it will continue to impact their work—until the next war comes along.
If nothing, due to the size and nature of the events there are still plenty of stories to tell. 12 Strong is an example of that breadth of subject matter. In it, we learn about Task Force Dagger. The Task Force is made up of CIA paramilitary and military special forces. Task Force Dagger, lead by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), are part of the first military operation in Afghanistan following 9/11. Their goal, escort General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to try and gain back control of Mazar-i-Shariff from the Taliban. Each of the men on the Task Force, at least the ones played by top-billed actors, leaves behind a family—something to go home to. Over the course of 21 days, Mitch must earn Dostum’s trust. In doing so, he’ll assist him in taking back political strong holds, thus hindering the Taliban. Raids and explosions ensue.
12 Strong Review
In all honesty, I appreciate these stories and what are military has done. However, I feel like this was made in an effort to tell a story that wasn’t necessarily full of the drama required to drive this sort of narrative.
12 Strong does many little things right. The battles sequences are constructed in a very coherent matter. The performances are top notch. In fact, we have a great ensemble on display—Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Rob Riggle and more turn in fun performances. The cinematography is great. Yet, the parts don’t add up to be greater than the whole.
The script, from Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town, Mockingjay) is very shallow. All 12 of the men in this squad are interchangeable and disposable. They all have the same slightly arrogant, somewhat funny schtick. Michael Shannon’s Cal Spencer is the standout only because he’s older, which leads to some humorous exchanges—which leads me to my next point of contention. The film is very lighthearted at times.
Considering its subject matter, it never handles the events with any sort of brevity. The weight of the tragedy never lays bare on any of the players—at least the American soldiers. The events weigh much heavily on the Afghan militia that Task Force Dagger rides with. We see the tragedy in the child soldiers, threatened with their life if the Americans should come to harm. We see it, albeit very heavy-handed, in the Taliban’s grasp of Afghanistan.
The script is also very intent on feeding us too much information. There are several cutaways to commanders keeping track of the task force, but the sole purpose of these scenes is exposition. Yet, only moments earlier did we see or hear the exact same thing. For example:
MITCH: “Let’s do X, Y and Z.”
INT. COMMAND CENTRAL
COMMANDER: “They’re going to do X, Y and Z.”
This sort of repetitive explanation adds unnecessary fat to an incredibly lean story. Its as though the writers knew they didn’t have enough interesting material, so they added repetitive fluff to buy time. This movie runs a loose 2 hours, and it could easily be done in 90 min–100 min. The whole structure of the film feels this repetitive. We get a few scenes of talking and debate between Mitch and Dostum, then a raid, followed by some bonding time. This cycle repeats at least three times. That being said, the final battle sequence is pretty good, but there’s no drama.
There is no reason to care about any of the American characters in this film.
In the film, there is a sequence where Dostum discusses “killer eyes”. He immediately disregards Hemsworth’s Mitch, an untested-in-battle captain, because he doesn’t have “killer eyes”. In a room full of soldiers, Dostum is easily able to spot the man who has never killed a person. And, before I wrap up, it’s important to note that once Mitch does finally kill an enemy, it doesn’t phase him. It’s as if taking a man’s life has no impact on him whatsoever. I find this hard to believe, in the moment? Maybe. However, in the moments afterwards, once the adrenaline is gone, there has to be some emotion.
I digress. 12 Strong, like it’s protagonist, lacks “killer eyes”. 12 Strong has nothing of note to say. It refuses to grapple with any of the issues inherent to any war—ideological, emotional, political or other. And, it seems intent to just skate by, presenting a couple of cool battle sequences.
Is it a bad movie? Not necessarily. Is it a good movie? Not necessarily. It’s a movie. By the most basic definition, it is image and audio captured on film and displayed to an audience. But, in my mind, that is the worst kind of movie.
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