Amongst the regular witticisms used to leaven the American war movie 12 Strong, one of the funnier lines is at the expense of an Afghan general who doesn't want backup in the assault on a Taliban stronghold – in case a rival leader arrives before him and hogs the credit. "That's not very big picture of him," deadpans one of his American allies.
Well, that's the pot calling the kettle black: 12 Strong depends heavily on keeping its audience focused on the small picture in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Forget the fraudulent search for weapons of mass destruction, forget the mess that was Iraq, forget Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and concentrate instead on the direct line from the assault on the Twin Towers to the rout of al-Qaeda's protectors in Afghanistan. That's what the Americans were supposed to do and, according to this based-on-a-true-story movie, they had made significant strides in defeating the Taliban before Christmas, 2001.
In its search for American heroes in 21st-century geopolitics, 12 Strong suffers badly from a script stuffed with clichéd dialogue and some heavy-handed scenes on both the home front and in Afghanistan. Still, director Nicolai Fuglsig does succeed admirably in turning a contemporary battle fought with precision air strikes and satellite communications into a classic war movie with unambiguous good guys and a vile enemy. Put aside your hindsight and at least you'll be rewarded with some invigorating action.
After some convoluted stuff about why one Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is on leave from a special-ops unit, the leader quickly teams up with Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and the scene is set: As the towers collapse on the TV screen in the mess hall, Hemsworth tells his supporting cast, "We're in this fight, boys, you mark my words," while a grim-faced Shannon hovers meaningfully.
There follows much bidding farewell to peeved wives and arguing with doubtful superior officers before Nelson finally meets his real match: the Afghan General Dostum (Navid Negahban, finessing the potentially insulting role of the gnomic foreigner). He's a slippery ally who doesn't believe a young American captain without combat experience could possibly defeat the Taliban and, since all 12 titular characters are unified in perfect solidarity, it's the tension between Dostum and Nelson that proves the most rewarding character conflict of the film.
The job the Americans have set themselves seems impossible: travelling by horseback with Dostum's few hundred men, Nelson and his 11 soldiers, none of whom have ridden before, have to get close enough to Taliban-controlled villages to call in the co-ordinates for air strikes. (Just in case you forgot that the Taliban is evil personified, there's a village scene where a Taliban leader shoots a woman for teaching her young daughters how to spell and multiply, but what happens to civilians during these air strikes is never revealed.) What happens to the Taliban is disastrous, yet the defeat of an army of thousands equipped with tanks, rockets and mortars by the 12 "horse soldiers" and their far-off air support is never a foregone conclusion.
That is what makes the movie highly watchable – along with Hemsworth's affable presence, backed by the always reliable Shannon and with Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes as two of the soldiers, providing wry commentary from the sidelines. The script, adapted by Ted Tally and Peter Craig from a book by Doug Stanton, hits heavily on the original motive for the fight but otherwise refrains from speechifying about America and apple pie; instead, it hands Hemsworth a long string of generic macho pronouncements: "I am not going to lie: there's a chance we aren't going to make it," he informs his men toward the end. Negahban's Dostum, on the other hand, gets all the wisdom. "There are no right choices: this is Afghanistan," he tells Nelson before predicting: "You will be cowards if you leave; you will become our enemies if you stay."
Big picture, and the guy can see the future, too.
12 Strong opens Jan. 19