We’ve seen countless films about the events during and after 9/11 over the years and occasionally those stories involve the war that was sparked as a result of the devastating attacks. One story we hadn’t heard yet was of the first group to take on the challenge of responding. “12 Strong” attempts to tell that story focusing on the first group of U.S. warriors who teamed with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to deal the first blows against the Taliban. Sporting a decent cast and a worthy story, “12 Strong” is entertaining enough, but it also delves into generic territory. So is it worthy of praise or just another average war flick? This is my review of “12 Strong”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“12 Strong” tells of the 12 U.S. Green Berets in Operational Detachment Alpha 595 who were the first members of Task Force Dagger to retaliate overseas in the wake of 9/11. The force is led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) with the remaining soldiers played by a series of familiar names and newcomers including Michael Shannon and Michael Peña who were all inspired by the real life soldiers of ODA 595. The soldiers join forces with real-life warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to ride into battle on horseback and destroy Taliban strongholds using air raids in an attempt to liberate Mazar-i-Sharif from Taliban control. As the story progresses the 12 soldiers face early setbacks of the war on terror and must bridge cultural divides and inter-alliance rivalries to accomplish their impossible goal in three weeks’ time.
“12 Strong” sports a cast of characters who all embrace their roles as the first force against terror in the wake of a national tragedy. Led by Chris Hemsworth, the cast does give us fun and enjoyable soldiers to embrace but not really anything more. Hemsworth is a great actor, I can’t deny that. But as the leader of this cast, and the leader of the soldiers as Mitch Nelson, it’s hard not to agree with Abdul Rashid Dostum in the movie in believing Nelson is kind of a bland leader. Hemsworth is known for his charisma and whit, none of which is on display here. He takes this role almost too seriously with no real direction or personality to speak of for Nelson and no real impressive chemistry with any of the actors on screen save for a select few. It’s a pretty bland performance, one that offers just enough to be passable but not enough to be convincing or hold this film together the way it was supposed to.
The rest of the cast does turn in some entertaining performances however, giving us memorable soldiers with personality and a mix of lighthearted sarcasm and dedication to their duty. Michael Shannon, as always, is a breath of fresh air as Chief Warrant officer Cal Spencer and the group’s defacto second in command but the true highlight role among the soldiers is Michael Peña who is a true national treasure. Peña steals every scene he’s in with great comedic timing and sincere dialogue that makes him probably the most relatable soldier on screen. While he is the third string star behind Hemsworth and Shannon, Peña’s performance adds a special something to every scene he is a part of and he truly seems to enjoy his character unlike many of the bigger stars in this project who, unfortunately, kind of phone it in.
Another notable performance in this film is Navid Negahban as real-life Northern Alliance leader and current Vice President of Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum. While it’s no Oscar worthy performance, Negahban provides an alternate hero to this story that actually overpowers many of his American counterparts and gives us a warlord layered with complexity and personality. Just like the soldiers on screen, we don’t ever really know what to expect next from Dostum. Every moment with him on screen has a sense of mystery and subtlety about it that feels appropriate and allows Nagahban to have a bit of fun portraying a real-life figure who is flawed by brutally honest about the war he has chosen to pursue.
“12 Strong” tells a very worthy story and, in many ways, gives us exactly what we wanted. While the acting overall might be a bit bland, it’s still a solid cast and the story is presented in a smooth and enjoyable manner. Thankfully the plot doesn’t lean too heavily on the emotional impact of the 9/11 attacks quickly shifting to the actual conflict which allows this story to grow on its own away from the crutch of the tragedy. To that effect we get a fleshed out story of the first attacks in retaliation that feels warranted and is genuinely interesting.
The film is also thrilling and fun as a war epic and while it might be a bit too stripped down (I’ll get to that in a minute) there are moments of suspense and chaos that truly make us wonder how the heroes will make it out alive. Moments of tension that feel natural and dangerous make up both the battlefield conflict and the interpersonal conflicts these characters endure which helps this film rise above mediocrity to become at least a decent source of war story entertainment worth experiencing. It’s not enough to help it rise to the level of greatness it probably wanted to reach, but it’s enough to make it a fun popcorn history feature about real life heroes deserving of respect and honor.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The irony about “12 Strong” is for all its suspense and thrills it’s also terribly predictable. If you researched the soldiers before the film you know what’s going to happen so any stress over the mortality and survival of characters is diminished before you even go into the film. It is still fun to see how the soldiers make things happen and to the movie’s credit it manages to make us worry for the safety of these men even though we might already know the outcome, but in the end the result is still terribly predictable even for those who didn’t know the story going in.
The worst thing I can say about “12 Strong” however is that it is, by all means, generic. I won’t call it uninspired or bland because those would be false accusations, but it doesn’t truly tread on any new ground and even though its story is very much worth telling there’s nothing here to separate it from similar war epics. There’s no creativity and very little depth to the story itself as the film leans more heavily on suspense and the battles than character motives. We get to see the personalities of these warriors, but very little time is spent establishing just how much they care about the events that lead to this conflict or their own mortality so at times it seems like what we’re watching are battle hungry American’s who saw a fight and just wanted to shoot someone. We know that’s no the truth, but it’s unfortunately what we see here. I mean seeing the soldiers ride into battle on horseback is fun and exciting, but it’s not as inspiring and jaw dropping as I think the filmmakers wanted it to be. Simply put, “12 Strong” serves as a fun, thrilling, suspenseful and worthy story that plays it too safe and never quite finds its footing.
“12 Strong” has its moments. The story it tells is one worth embracing and the heroes it portrays are worthy of recognition, but in the end it never really reaches the heights it probably wanted to, or deserved to reach. The battle scenes are thrilling and some of the characters stand out nicely, but for the most part its nothing more than a generic modern war flick driven by post 9/11 sentiment with little development of the men behind the first great strike back against those responsible. It does just enough to be entertaining and fun, but not enough to be considered groundbreaking or original. It doesn’t insult the legacy of its subjects, but never truly does them justice either. It’s just kind of there. The one reason I can recommend this film is that it serves as an interpretation of a real life American hero story that need’s to be respected, but if you’re looking for a truly engaging, exciting and powerful war film “12 Strong” is a take it or leave it kind of movie that is neither horrendous nor impressive. It simply just is.