‘12 Strong’ Wins the Battle as it Loses the War

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CHICAGO – In the 16 years of the U.S. and Afghanistan war, which began a month after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and lost 2,400 soldiers. The story of that war’s first battle, “12 Strong,” would probably be more revelatory if we weren’t still there.

To compare war films and their eras, the events depicted in the World War II film, “The Longest Day” (1962) took place 18 years before the movie, and it was about the decisive “D-Day” battle that helped to win that war. While “12 Strong” is a similarly dramatic war tale (and was classified until recently), it is just the beginning of a 16 year slog. If that had been the case for “The Longest Day,” and World War II was still going on, that film wouldn’t have the same feeling or impact. “12 Strong” suffers that fate because of the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, and even as a war movie, its battle sequences become interminable.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), an Army Green Beret strategist, has been assigned stateside under the auspice of Lt. Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle). While doing training maneuvers, the events of September 11th, 2001, changes everything, including his assignment and duties. He will now lead “Task Force Dagger” into the newly declared Afghanistan War, which includes Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Diller (Michael Peña).

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Helmsworth) Rides Into Battle in ’12 Strong’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

When his team of 12 men (Green Berets and CIA paramilitary) get to Afghanistan, the mountainous terrain is close to impossible for troop movement. They hook up with a ally, part of the in-country Northern Alliance, led by General Dostum (Navid Negahban of TV’s “Homeland”). This rag-tag military force travels by horseback, and encourages the 12 American soldiers to do the same. This small battalion has three weeks to capture a major, and strategic, Taliban-infiltrated city.

Actors represent specific types, and like any war movie “12 Strong” is a reminder of those types. The ruggedly handsome and relentless squad leader (Hemsworth), the quick witted Diller (Peña) and the stoic-yet-determined Spencer (Shannon). These three would have been at home in any 1940s World War II movie, and their bright white teeth could have dubbed them the “Dental Squad.” Throw in Rob Riggle, normally a comic actor, and I half expected him to break from his starchy character (a commander he once actually served under as an former officer) and start giggling.

The focus is on the assignment and the subsequent battles, and the movie piles it on. The U.S. heroes luckily dodged fatal wounds, but the squib (fake bullet) budget for this film had to be astronomical. The killing of the enemy is almost automatic, and the Western movie images of mounted horseman dispensing the bad guys with a pistol bordered on the absurd. The preferred method of death for the enemy was the head shot, so there were as many of those as a 24/7 viewing of the Zapruder film.

Unlikely Allies: General Dostum (Navid Negahban) Gives Aid to Nelson in ’12 Strong’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

The battles could also reasonably be called war porn, because of the length and overindulgence of them. The film makes hay regarding the friendship of Hemsworth’s character with the Northern Alliance general as a dramatic alternative, but also some strategic overview might have been more interesting instead of battle repetition. What these soldiers did was pretty amazing, but it’s not unusual to think, “what kind of quagmire takes up another 16 years of soldiers and resources?” If this battle was so historic, aren’t historic battles suppose to end wars?

After 9/11, these were the questions that most leaders and ordinary citizens refused to express, even if they did think about them. We were “angry and wanted revenge,” cue the rockets red glare. But 16 years later, we still haven’t got out of a desperate region we’ll never understand, the so-called place where “empires go to die.” It’s time to ask some questions.

”12 Strong” opens everywhere on January 19th. Featuring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Rob Riggle and Navid Negahbah. Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2018 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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