Movie Review: 12 Strong

The War in Afghanistan was interesting until about 14 years ago. As a civilian, to me it looks more like a cleanup operation, and trying to leave the country better than when we found it. The real exciting stuff happened before then, even further back with the Soviets in a war that would become their Vietnam. Rambo Part 3 and 9th Company are a couple movies that shed light on the unique aspects of that conflict. It still baffles me that the Afghanis would fight on horseback back like it was the 19th Century. Not many people realize this was the reality of the situation until years after we arrived and that is what 12 Strong hopes to convey.

After 9/11, the US Army sends a team of 12 to northern Afghanistan to facilitate a powerful militia, and fight the Taliban. When they get there, the team must contend with a language barrier and the terrain that can only be navigated on horseback.

12 Strong is in a bit of a spot of bother. Dunkirk more or less set the standard for war films to come. It cuts through the clichés and fluff and gets right the heart of the subject. Like Clint Eastwood with a massive budget, Dunkirk got to the point of that story. There was no real character development and there did not need to be. It was a tale of survival and that is all it had to be. However, the Dunkirk formula is not for everyone.

Sometimes theatrics and clichés are necessary to spice up an otherwise mundane story. Not all war related subjects are exciting enough on their own. It is like your average adaptation; you have to change the source material to make it filmable. The clichés in 12 Strong persist throughout in a limited sense. Every now and then the characters will talk about their families, getting each other home, all this stuff you have seen before. There is no denying it gets annoying very quickly, but 12 Strong has a lot more to it that you can look past the obvious flaws.

The crux of the narrative is the conflict between Chris Hemsworth’s Captain Nelson and Navid Negahban’s General Dostum. Nelson is a straightforward thinker when it comes to dealing with Taliban: shoot them. Dostum, being a local with decades of experience in the region, understands the minutia of fighting the Taliban, and the nature of warfare from an antiquated perspective. Both want to win the war, but they have very different ways of fighting. This is where 12 Strong stands out and it is the best part. You want to see these two vastly different men interact and try to work together. It was infinitely more compelling than the action sequences.

That is not to say the action was dull. It certainly could have been with the nature of fighting in an environment like Afghanistan. Because this takes place when horses were used in combat, it is a lot more interesting. There is a logical reason for the borderline exaggerated sequences where mounted infantry charge tanks and technicals because it actually happened. For a first time director, Nicolai Fuglsig knows how to shoot with spectacle in mind. There is no shaky cam, the staging is simple, and it looks great. It has a lot in common with older war movies like Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers. There are a ton of sweeping shots of active battlefields and long-distance tableaus of the terrain as it is bombed from above.

12 Strong is not perfect. The film runs two hours and it feels like three. A big drawback of the fluff is it drags the running time to a crawl. It packs on a lot of weight that should have been excised in favor of highlighting Nelson and Dostum’s conflict. There is also shoddy CG elements that could have been cut entirely. There is a B-52 and a scene with a rocket truck that was late 90’s bad. The entire CG budget should have been used on that truck alone. Then there are a ton of fake squibs and muzzle flashes, but not everywhere. Funny how the film was shot in New Mexico, a pro-gun state, and they did not have access to enough blanks for all their weapons.

For a January movie, 12 Strong is pretty good. It is not the best thing ever and it has plenty of problems, but it does not fail. It is an anachronistic film, a callback to a time when war movies were more focused on spectacle without trivializing the nuances of the subject. If that strikes your fancy, I recommend it as a matinee. It will not appeal to most people, but I say it is worth a watch in an otherwise sour month.

(Muh book:


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