12 Strong tells the story of the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11. Under the leadership of a new captain, the team must work with an Afghan warlord to take down the Taliban.
2 Hours, 10 Minutes
January 19th, 2018
Directors: Nicolai Fuglsig
Writer: Ted Tally & Peter Craig
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Navid Negahban
Acclaimed Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer is back with a military action film depicting one of the most important and historically unknown moments of the War on Terror. Much like films like Lone Survivor and American Sniper before it, this film brings an exciting if potentially controversial story that seeks to speak to the under-told stories of American veterans who gave their lives after 9/11 but ultimately suffers serious storytelling issues on the margins.
Violence: Many scenes of graphic war violence. Characters bleed, are shot in the head and chest, and are blown up with grenades.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe use of language including F**k, S***, and D***.
Sexual content: A character asks his wife to engage in marital relations.
Drug/Alcohol Use: A character drinks from a bottle of vodka.
Spiritual Content: Multiple characters discuss aspects of Islam.
Other Negative Themes: Depictions of middle-eastern culture include depictions of the oppression of women and inter-tribal conflict.
Positive Content: Strong portrayal of loyalty, duty, and responsibility.
January has traditionally been held up as that month of the year that Hollywood treats as a kind of garbage dump. It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to make disposable films but when those films are prohibitively expensive and you need to clean up the PR for your upcoming multimillion dollar investment often the best thing you can actually do is just to quietly release your film to theaters at the exact moment when the least number of people will be looking at it. As we speak, Hollywood is currently embroiled in awards season preparations as audiences pile into theaters for late showings of The Shape of Water (Our Review!), Ladybird (Our Review!), The Post (Our Review!), and the myriad of other Oscar nominees. Who’s going to pay attention to the bad stuff being crammed into theaters right now? When it comes to bad horror films, bad action films, bad animated films, and anything else January is the most consistent month for finding these quiet little disasters.
For the past half-decade, however, there has been something of a stir ongoing in the January movie season. I’ve talked about the phenomena of the yearly action-war movie on other blogs, most recently with my enormous write up on Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day last year. The insane success of the modern action military drama goes back as far as 2012 with the surprise success of Act of Valor and subsequent following success of Zero Dark Thirty, both bolstered by the recent assassination of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Ladin that put so much ink to paper on the subject of the American Navy Seals. Up to this point there really hadn’t been much of a strong patriotic groundswell in Hollywood following the War on Terror and the major film releases on the subject of the two wars and been intermittently critical of various aspects of the wars with films like Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Body of Lies, The Green Zone, and Lions for Lambs.
Suddenly a huge market burst open in Hollywood that made way for the mega successes of American Sniper and Lone Survivor to utterly dominate the cultural conversation. Due in part of the Oscar committee’s rules on Academy Awards submission these films all wound up being released to the market in January of their respective years while still being released in enough theaters in December of the previous year in major cities like Los Angeles to warrant a submission without having to compete with the ever-present Christmas market. As a result, this new wave of war films utterly grasped at the core of the middle-American psyche in a way few major films do, famously selling out screenings for weeks, breaking box office records for films those years and stirring a few minor culture war battles in the process. While the phenomena definitely peaked with the success of American Sniper in early 2015, the subsequent success of releases such as Michael Bay’s 13 Hours and the aforementioned Patriot’s Day have kept the mini-genre churning in the background for the past two years.
This January brings with it this year’s first of two films in this genre that are set to come out this year. 12 Strong just released to theaters with Clint Eastwood’s 15:17 to Paris due early in February. 12 Strong is brought to us by legendary Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He’s been a consistent force in Hollywood for three decades now having brought us franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, and appropriately Black Hawk Down. If nothing else having his name behind this film brings a great deal of legitimacy to what appeared in the trailers to be a rather lukewarm film compared to many of its contemporaries.
As I was analyzing the film in theaters it struck me that the story had a great deal of visible similarity to another famous war film, Lawrence of Arabia. Melodramatic comparison though it may be there were several notable visual and thematic similarities between the two stories. 12 Strong is set in the month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and follows the actions of a squad of American Army Special Forces troops working alongside combatants in Northern Afganistan in the opening weeks of the War on Terror in an attempt to quickly destabilize the Taliban and prevent further terrorist attacks on American soil.
The immediate similarities to David Lean’s classic seemed rather striking at times. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a younger filmmaker attempted to rip off of a Hollywood treasure for “inspiration.” The movie is of course based on the recently declassified story of said Special Forces troops in the early weeks of the war so whatever relation to Lawrence of Arabia the film might have may naturally be the effect of setting more than anything else. That being said the wide shots of vast armies of horseback riding troopers and stories of lone western soldiers being sent to help guide wars in the middle east do suggest at least some level of homage.
Seeing the film through that lens certainly left me pondering a difficult question. What is a good war film? I was immediately reminded of a quote my father told me many years ago, “there are no pro-war movies.” To put it more clearly, war is something that no person should ever desire or ask for. When you go back and watch the more overtly propagandistic John Wayne war movies like Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, or They Were Expendable those films never portrayed the actual war-fighting of their stories in a positive light.
Even the famously patriotic and controversial American Sniper doesn’t portray war romantically. The most famous scene in the film of Chris Kyle achieving the act of confirming a sniper kill miles away is punctuated by waves of enemy soldiers swarming and attacking his fellow soldiers while he desperately calls his wife to tell him he’s had enough of war and wants to go home. By the end of the film, he’s so deeply traumatized by his regrets from the war that he starts working at a PTSD Trauma Center to help other soldiers.
The fundamental issue that separates nuance in war films isn’t its depiction about the worthiness of war so much as it is a debate about the merits of the results of war. John Wayne films and American Sniper suggest that despite the horrors of war there are still reasons to go to war while much harsher war movies like Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan revel in the unrelenting horror of its combat and suggest that whatever goal there is for going to war it isn’t worth the dehumanization.
12 Strong definitely sits upon the former of those two propositions. Almost every character we meet in the duration of the film is a soldier whose dedication to the cause of defending their country/way of life/religion is so all-encompassing that they will unquestionably die for it. For good measure, Chris Hemsworth’s lead character starts the movie by flipping a desk when he finds out that he may not be allowed to be deployed after his promotion. Whatever can be said in regards to the film in terms of its overall quality, the film certainly stakes out its claim in terms of where it stands on the topic of war.
By and large, 12 Strong is a mostly competent film. It sports solid performances from credible actors and sports enough intense action that you’ll probably be able to pay it attention for the duration of its runtime. It is, however, a bit hollow and doesn’t work itself onto the level of its contemporaries.
Chris Hemsworth’s performance as Captain Mitch Nelson is a solid one coming from the popular and bankable actor. Considering his recent comedic turn in films like Ghostbusters and Thor: Ragnarok there is a surprising weight to his emotions as he plays his frustrations and loyalty so straight. His character isn’t terribly complex but the decisions he makes along with Hemsworth’s unearthly level of charisma carry the performance well enough.
Michael Shannon and Michael Pena both get solid reoccurring roles within the film and turn in solid performances. Shannon’s role does suffer a bit from the uncanny valley effect, however. His recent roles in major films like Man of Steel, 99 Homes, and Shape of Water usually emphasize damaged or corrupted versions of classic masculinity/white collar middle America so seeing him played straight almost comes across as underutilizing him to some degree. The real break out performance of the film, however, comes from the relatively unknown Navid Negahban as General Dostom who’s character is filled out as the most complex and fully dimensional person we see on screen. He even gets a full character arc that evolves with the story, unlike the other characters. His performance though really does highlight the major problem with this and many other films in its genre.
Many of these war movies don’t really work all that well as stories. As popular as Lone Survivor, American Sniper, and this are they suffer as stories because they’re suffering from severe structural and storytelling problems. Stories are ultimately defined by characters making choices with consequences. As I mentioned in my aforementioned Peter Berg article, stories like this usually set up a group of characters with likable enough personalities and then merely throw them into the wringer for them to be innately noble. None of our characters except General Dostom ever have to struggle with an internal conflict that affects their decisions.
The result is a film that is structurally compromised and emotionally hollow for much of it’s screen time. Really the best emotional moment of the film doesn’t come with the cathartic victory, characters being injured in battle or Hemsworth’s reunion with his wife but from Dostom’s final scene in the film. That scene works because it’s set up with a psychology that shows us just how difficult his decision in that moment is and as a result, it hits harder than all those other theoretically meaningful moments.
At the end of the day, Bruckheimer wanted to shoot a film that was more war documentary/reenactment than a functional story. It’s kind of like that background footage that History Channel documentaries shoot when they’re talking about historical events. I may not be emotionally enveloped but it shows me what happened in a very straightforward way. Really the best thing I can offer to the film is that I found it to be a mostly competent action movie that never really gets excessively brutal or boring for the most part.
12 Strong may very well be the continuation of a strange but pressing sub-genre of cinema that’s clearly very desired by large quantities of audiences but it doesn’t hold a candle to other war films. The film clearly wants to have the pressing importance of something like Lawrence of Arabia but it skirts more into the territory of something like Delta Force. If you’re a fan of war films you’ll be entertained enough by the real-life history of the events but beyond that, there isn’t enough to make it a memorable film.
+ Great Performance by Navid Negahban
+ Solid Action Scenes
- Poor Character Writing for Most Characters
- Emotionally Hollow Story
- No Interesting Commentary on War