Review: ‘12 Strong’ Believes in the Brotherhood of Battle

Posted January 18, 2018 5:13 p.m. EST

Chris Hemsworth firing a carbine while riding tall and proud in the saddle — that image more or less captures what you need to know about “12 Strong,” a movie with a veneer of seriousness and the slam-bam-boom soul of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. It opens under a pall on the morning of Sept. 11. Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), a Special Forces officer, has just moved into a new home with his family and is watching the twin towers burn on TV. Soon, he and his team are choking on dust in Afghanistan, where references to the Alamo mix with the spirit of John Wayne jingoism.

There’s a story here, but first and foremost there are men. Tough, hard-bodied, soulful men, the kind who, in volcanic frustration, will slam hands as big as Easter hams against walls and who can — as Mitch does while idling in a military office — flip over a desk as lightly as if he were chucking a toy truck. Other hard-bodied men see his hurt, but as strong, discreet brothers they, too, keep their feelings in check. “Nice kill,” a comrade archly says, surveying the ruins of Mitch’s desk. “12 Strong” has just begun, but its world of masculine pain, private anguish and commitment to violence is already firmly in place.

The movie shifts into a steady action groove once the not especially dirty dozen lands in Afghanistan. There, the Americans warily join forces with Gen. Dostum (a charismatic Navid Negahban), a warlord who they hope will join them in their fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Dostum views Mitch with skepticism and favors his subordinate, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon). Hal, Dostum notes approvingly, has “killer eyes,” which Shannon certainly doesn’t disprove. Once Team USA and Team Afghan stop glowering and growling at each other, a posse hits the trail on horseback and Dostum and Mitch settle into a mentor-student bond that evokes the Karate Kid and the road to wisdom.

For devotees of cinematic blowouts and dedicated students of screen masculinity (like me), “12 Strong” is premium, Grade A catnip. Directed by the newcomer Nicolai Fuglsig, it is generally watchable, if unsurprisingly easier on the eyes than on the ears or brain. It’s well stocked with dependable actors and ornamented with swooping aerial shots of the severely beautiful landscape. (New Mexico stands in for Afghanistan.) There are pretty horses, echoes of heroic westerns and a halfhearted rendition — pitched between sincerity and irony — of “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” the gung-ho anthem that hit the charts in 1966, when the United States was on its way to losing the war in Vietnam.

Winning and losing aren’t the point of “12 Strong,” and neither are politics, the present, the past, the United States or Afghanistan. Its reason for being is brotherhood, as belief and way of life. It sings of how men become warriors and of how they can reach across seemingly impossible divides to clasp hands and lock eyes before blowing their mutual enemy to pieces. And while Sept. 11 gives Mitch and his men their mission, the locals aren’t entirely ignored, not exactly. The motto of the Special Forces is “To Free the Oppressed,” a creed the movie underscores, most forcefully in a scene of a Taliban leader, Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), terrorizing a family that has educated its daughters.

Still, while the movie largely elides overt politics and policies, both domestic and foreign, they are inextricably embedded in every single narrative turn, each word and image. (They’re also embedded in the credits: Like other movies of this type, “12 Strong” received technical support from the U.S. military.) Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig — and adapted from Doug Stanton’s well-received nonfiction book “Horse Soldiers” (2009) — the movie takes for granted that military action in Afghanistan is essential and justified. The filmmakers make that case mostly with images of Sept. 11 — cut to a man’s clenching fist — and through scenes and stories of the Taliban’s violence.

The periodic references to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan suggest that the larger picture is, well, awfully complicated. Real complications, though, are for other movies. We’re now almost 17 years into the war of Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history. That’s a deeply sobering marker but one that has no place in “12 Strong,” which starts as a recruitment ad before settling into a tense, unremittingly brutal combat movie. Fuglsig’s contribution to this basically well-coordinated mayhem — which includes fiery explosions, a Bruckheimer trademark — is hard to gauge. It also scarcely matters when bodies rise and fall to a beat as natural as our circadian rhythms.

“12 Strong” is rated R for war carnage. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes.