Film Review: 12 Strong

There seems to be a strange feedback loop at play between the US military and its onscreen persona. Actors have long drawn from the macho personas of the military to inform their performances, and soldiers in turn have watched these these slightly jingoistic, alpha-led performances and sought to emulate their onscreen idols. Every squaddie wants to be John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Chris Pratt. This is why, when I see a war film lacking in nuance with a big helping of sentimentality, I’m not overly critical. Sure to me it stands out as an unnaturalistic performance, but, having met quite a few US military guys, I kind of think, “you know, that’s probably about right amount of unnaturalistic.” When it comes to 12 Strong then, I’m probably a touch forgiving of its two-dimensional participants.

12 Strong tells the story of the first US soldiers to operate in Afghanistan following the fall of the Twin Towers. Captain Mitch Nelson, played by Chris Hemsworth, and his team are dropped in Northern Afghanistan, where they must win the trust of a warlord and maintain the integrity of the Northern Alliance. It is Afghan warlord, General Dostum, that holds the key to breaking Taliban rule and eliminating the Al Qaeda forces, which the regime harbours.

The thing about Hollywood tropes is that they become tropes for a reason. While 12 Strong was fairly trope heavy, they weren’t ineffective. Mitch Nelson and his squad all had to say goodbye to their loved ones, before heading off on their uncertain mission. There were wives and new-born children, lives they might not return to. The US General Staff served two purposes: one, to present an obstacle to Mitch Nelson’s initial leadership of his team in Afghanistan; the other, to provide background exposition for the Afghan narrative. While these tropes often lacked subtlety, they served to produce fairly solid cinema fodder. 12 Strong doesn’t break new ground, not by a long shot, but it does tell an extremely unique tale, which might not have reached its audience by other means. It is the authenticity of 12 Strong in which the true charm lies.

I had no idea what to expect from this film. It looked to be action, but it was also a real life story of a US special ops mission in Afghanistan. Was it going to be a hard hitting representation for the brutality of Afghanistan under the Taliban; would it be a Hemsworth action vehicle masquerading under the vale of truth; or perhaps, it was it going to be a more straight down the line war movie? I had no idea which format it would take.

The film touches only briefly upon the brutal nature of Taliban rule, even less so does it represent Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. It’s focus is instead on the relationship between the US soldiers and the Afghans of the Northern Alliance. This created an interesting core to the film as Nelson seeks to win the trust and respect of General Dostum, the leader on a war-band. The Dostum-Nelson relationship is central. General Dostum is an Afghan warrior mistrustful of the Americans, but unable to defeat the Taliban alone. Nelson has something to prove to himself, as a captain without active service experience, but also to General Dostum.

The credits roll with a photograph of the real life heroes on which the story is based. It’s an interesting contrast to see actual hero in parallel to his Hollywood counterpart. The real life guys weren’t quite as dashing, and they weren’t quite as cut, as their representations. What the film shows though, is how bloody mindedness overcomes all obstacles. It is an extraordinary tale, which seems to fall into the realms of Kipling more readily than it does the post 9/11 world. I enjoyed 12 Strong, it provides testament to the fact the derring-do is not a solely English preserve.

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