September 11th, 2001 is a day that everyone in the U.S. remembers; a day of great pain and sorrow which inspired men and women to band together to help those that needed saving. We honor the first responders that went through the wreckage of the World Trade Center, but we rarely hear the stories of our servicemen who risked their lives to bring to justice the organization responsible. Given the heightened emotions around such a critical moment in our nation’s history, a film that dares touch on the subject needs to treat it delicately and with honor, eschewing patriotic sentimentality for the truest sense of duty. Such is the case with Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, the story of twelve Special Forces servicemen who requested deployment to Afghanistan in the first mission to take down the Taliban because it was their duty.
Inspired by the declassified story and based on the book by Doug Stanton, originally titled “Horse Soldiers”, 12 Strong recalls the mission dubbed Task Force Dagger wherein Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sgt First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña), Sgt First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), Sean Coffers (Geoff Stults), and seven other Special Forces members traveled to Afghanistan in an effort to disrupt and destabalize Al-Qaeda’s control of the Afghan region. To do this, Nelson’s team is tasked with earning the trust of local leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) whose men would protect and escort the team toward the city of Mazar-I-Sharif, believed to be a central component in Al-Qaeda’s grip on the region. With little time to prep, access to few supplies, and difficulty determining friend from foe, Task Force Dagger seemed doomed to fail before it began.
There’s a lot of expectation built into a film like 12 Strong. For one, war films – whether the outcome is victory or forfeit – tend to sanctify the protagonists and vilify the antagonists. For two, any story narratively connected to September 11th is immediately hot button. You can’t touch that moment in history without some sense of reverence for those lost. Impressively, Fuglsig’s approach seems to be more third-party witness than stuck-in-the-middle participant; an approach that extends top down, from the cinematography to the performances. Opening with news reports from 1993, 1998, and 2001, we’re given a historical record, not just placards, to detail the on-going struggle between the United States and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist activities. Then, the key event is displayed through two different news reports as Nelson sees them – first at home, then at his office. It’s a bold choice, yet also a compassionate one. Since the audience is already familiar with the event, it’s Nelson’s reaction that’s new. It’s this reaction that serves as the guiding light for his team to follow. Following this course, the events of 12 Strong are largely understated and refrain from any sort of judgment on one side or another; a refreshing change from the bombastic approach most war films indulge in.
Another interesting choice made by Fuglsig is the focus on the story over the participants. With star power like Hemworth and Shannon leading the team, household names like Peña, Rob Riggle, and William Fichtner associated with the squad, and Best Picture winner 2017 Moonlight’s Rhodes, there’s an expectation that the audience will get to dig in deep to who these people are, yet the story takes precedence always. This isn’t to suggest that each play a character without development, but to state that their character’s arc is the mission and whether or not it succeeds. (Although, one can’t help but wonder if placing such well-known actors in prime roles is a means to short-cut straight to audience interest to cover for such little development.) Anything else the characters do is merely in service of that objective. With a runtime of 2-hours 10-minutes, audiences would be right to expect some long soul-searching or extended dramatic speeches, but the narrative dictates that time is valuable and in short supply resulting in a cinematic experience that is constantly on the move, though never feeling rushed.
That said, each of the actors give striking performances. Hemsworth is believable as Nelson, the leader of the task force whose brains and leadership are respected by his squad even if he lacks combat experience. Shannon, as Nelson’s number two, serves as the wise elder statesman of the unit, while Peña’s imbues Diller with the wry sense of humor we’re used to from his performances along with a depth and strength that’s new. The rest of the U.S.-based characters may be given less to do toward moving the story forward, yet are not insignificant in the narrative. In this way, the rest of Task Force Dagger, their headquarters support from Colonel Mullholland (William Fichtner) and Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle is a strong non-comedic turn), and their home life all feel less superficial.
It’s especially important to note the representation of General Dostum and his nemesis Mullah Razzan, portrayed by Numan Acar. Given the nature of the story and the ease with which audiences are likely to vilify anyone from Afghanistan, 12 Strong takes great pains to establish both of these men as not only true believers in their causes, but of similar righteousness to the Americans. Though Task Force Dagger arrives with aerial weapon capabilities that can rain great horrors upon Razzan’s Al-Qaeda forces, Dostum and Razzan serve to remind us of the human cost of war. It’s not just the lives our enemies take, but what we take from ourselves when we select to do harm. These philosophical moments neither drag the story nor distract; rather, they serve a larger, completely unexpected narrative purpose.
12 Strong isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, but what it does do well is surprising enough to make a solid impression. Hemsworth, Shannon, Peña, and the rest of the cast will draw you in with their star power, making you care quickly about the characters right up until the moment the story reminds you that this isn’t some summer blockbuster. 12 Strong is a story of honor, duty, and patriotism that finds its footing by abandoning glory in favor of serving the story, much like the men of Task Force Dagger who took a chance with their lives to begin one of the longest modern wars in history.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.