I’m not really sure what the point of 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers is. On the surface, it seems to be a rah-rah true story of exceptional American soldiers teaming with Afghan fighters to score a crucial victory in the early days of the Afghanistan War. But as the War in Afghanistan drags into its 16th year with no end in sight or even parameters for victory, 12 Strong comes off blissfully unaware of how its heroic victories now seem like pyrrhic ones. Rather than illuminate a conflict that has engulfed our country for almost a generation, 12 Strong is content to be a third-rate action movie, wasting its talented cast in a well-intentioned but ultimately lackadaisical picture.
The day after 9/11, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) charges into his office and demands to be reunited with his team. After some assistance from his friend and Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Nelson, Spencer, and ten of their fellow soldiers, codenamed “Task Force Dagger”, head to Uzbekistan where they’re briefed on a mission of retaking a vital Taliban stronghold. Nelson’s mission is to meet up with rebel leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban), win his trust, and work with his forces to bring down the vital Taliban outpost at Mazar-i-Sharif.
For 12 Strong, the mission is the message, and Nicolai Fuglsig’s movie never reaches further than “The good American soldiers fight with good Afghanistan soldiers to bring down the bad Taliban men.” Along the way, there are brief acknowledgements that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires” and that the war is far from over, but rather than consider the long-term ramifications, 12 Strong just wants the comfort of good guys versus bad guys on a battlefield. That’s not to diminish the real heroism and courage of the actual soldiers who fought, but it is a criticism against the limited scope of the story 12 Strong seeks to tell.
The only moments where 12 Strong becomes remotely interesting is when we get a glimpse of Dostum. In addition to Negahban’s calm, measured performance, we see a character with a rich backstory, someone who has been embroiled in conflict for pretty much his entire life, suffered personal losses, and understands the difference between a soldier and a warrior. But is all too often the case in these tired narratives, the native character is pushed into a supporting role so that the American (who is almost always a white guy) can learn a valuable lesson and return a similar lesson to that supporting character.
In the case of 12 Strong, we get Mitch Nelson, and Hemsworth is…fine. It’s kind of remarkable to see how well Hemsworth succeeds when given a well-rounded character like in Thor: Ragnarok to how much he becomes just another pretty face when playing the one-dimensional Nelson. There’s nothing to build on, so Hemsworth just plays the stoicism and charm of the leader without being able to really add any depth. His co-stars suffer a similar fate despite including great actors like Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, and William Fichtner. 12 Strong isn’t hurting for talent; it’s hurting for a script that will make use of that talent.
Instead, it’s just another rote war movie that would rather be an action film rather than consider the weight of war, whether it’s this conflict or any conflict. Yes, there’s the stakes of “Will these men make it home alive?” but that’s the stakes in any war film, and one that becomes cheapened when more attention is paid to stunts with horses than any character development. The true story of the “horse soldiers” is remarkable, but the movie about them is sadly forgettable.