The marketing for 12 Strong has done it no favors; saddling it with a nondescript title makes it easier to shorthand the film as “the horse soldier movie,” which is fitting, given that the nonfiction book that serves as the film’s source material is Doug Stanton’s Horse Soldiers. Everyone’s gotta have a gimmick, especially in January, so for better or worse, this is the movie about Thor on a horse. What you’ll find once you sit down to actually watch it, however, is a film considerably more thoughtful than that description. It’s not a great film, and it’s not a particularly nuanced one, but there’s a more interesting story hidden behind the rah-rahing the film aims to sell.
Similarly, there’s a good movie hidden somewhere inside 12 Strong, probably tucked between the many explosions and the endless exposition. Unfussily directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, this is a film that’s all business. In that way, it’s similar to its subjects, whose commitment to simply making it happen accounts for much of the film’s appeal. For them, there’s no time to worry or question or monologue about the nature of war, because the clock is ticking. For us, there’s no richness of theme or sharp spikes of beauty or horror, just a story told efficiently. It’s occasionally good, but for the most part, 12 Strong simply does its job. That job: explosions, machine guns, and heroism, all shot in a workmanlike way that neither glorifies war, nor makes anything overly engaging out of it.
“Doing the job” can also be said for Task Force Dagger, an elite group of — you guessed it — 12 soldiers who became the first U.S. military unit to enter Afghanistan after September 11, 2001. Led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, pretty good), the task force has 21 days to successfully embed with the forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and topple a Taliban stronghold before the harsh Afghan winter makes such a task unachievable. The 12 men (played by Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Austin Stowell, and others) are often separated, but always united, and together they must adjust to their surroundings, earn the trust of the strangers that surround them, and yes, learn to ride horses in order to accomplish their impossible task and get home alive.
If that sounds straightforward and simplistic, well, it is. In many ways, 12 Strong feels a bit like The War in Afghanistan For Dummies, paying frequent lip service to the complexities and complications of history, combat, religion, politics, and terrain without ever fully exploring any of those complexities and complications. This just isn’t that movie. That it makes room for laying out the fact that none of this is really all that simple, typically in sequences between Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner) and Lt. Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle) back at base camp, is admirable but not particularly compelling. It’s as though screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig simply wanted to make sure that no one walked away from the film thinking that America won the War of Terror, or even that such a thing is really possible. Just covering their bases, back at home base.
The most troubling example of 12 Strong’s fondness for nodding at, but not engaging with, complexity emerges in the person of General Dotsum. The same can’t be said of Negahban, who gives the film’s best performance, packing his every scene (no matter how reductive) with nuance and restraint. But Dotsum is what the story needs him to be, and nothing more: an intimidating figure, then a noble figure, then a tragic figure, then a warm and fuzzy heroic figure. The facts aren’t so tidy, but the facts aren’t part of the job here.
It’s a recurring theme for 12 Strong: the actors have a hell of a lot interest in their characters than the screenplay does. Just try to name any of the characters not played by Shannon or Hemsworth afterward; frankly, if you can name those two, that’s impressive enough. They’re given things like hats and glasses to distinguish themselves, and Peña gets one great scene about his life before the military and why he joined, but other than that, they’re just a band of 11 guys who don’t know how to ride horse and one guy who does. (The one guy, naturally, is Thor.)
It’s a pity, because when Fuglsig (an award-winning photojournalist and commercial director helming only his second feature) and the screenwriters choose to actually invest in something, they do it exceedingly well. The biggest point of interest throughout the film is the practical realities of war. Choppers fly too high for the soldiers to breathe naturally, so they pass out and wake up with lack-of-oxygen hangovers. A guy slips a disc, but he can’t exactly see a chiropractor, so the work goes on and he’s laid flat while controlling a radio, or propped up on horseback grinding his teeth. Locals get to a supply drop before the unit can, so the squadron has to barter for their MREs and camouflage. No one speaks the language, but they can get by in Russian. An antenna gets knocked down, and it’s imperative that someone puts it back up. It’s the mundane things that can either end or save lives, and it’s in those details that 12 Strong stops feeling like a beginner’s guide to the Afghan War and starts feeling like a story about real-life people.
It could be a lot worse. With one possible exception, 12 Strong exhibits none of the blatant racism that’s often laced through so many modern war movies, though the film’s lack of interest in any Afghani characters who aren’t generals or silent children isn’t great. There are few ostentatiously waving flags and only one “don’t you quit on me!,” both marks in its favor. For the most part, 12 Strong isn’t overt propaganda, but it’s not really much of anything else, either. It’s just a movie about 12 guys who have to kick off a war with some horses. In that respect, calling it “the horse soldier movie” may not be that far off. If only it had something significant to say about the soldiers, or the horses, or about much of anything at all.