Sixteen years after U.S. troops landed in Afghanistan, the conflict there might be summed up as a violent holding pattern, or a stalemate we’re still mired in, or — if you squint hard enough — a slow-motion qualified success. But only the producer Jerry Bruckheimer would seek to portray it as a victory decisive enough to be called a triumph of the kick-ass American spirit.
“12 Strong,” one of those rare “serious” Bruckheimer productions, tells the story of the first U.S. soldiers to land in Afghanistan in the days after 9/11: the members of ODA 595, an elite Special Forces unit that was ordered to link up with a local warlord and fight its way, village by village, to the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif (the country’s fourth largest city). There, they would theoretically gut the Taliban’s nexus of power and topple the ability of Afghanistan to serve as a training ground for Al Qaeda troops.
Chris Hemsworth, in thatchy dark hair and a G.I. Joe scruff, speaking in a manly low voice of superstar resolve, plays the team’s captain, Mitch Nelson, who has never been in combat before. Yet he’s the kind of gung-ho volunteer who’s got sharpshooting in his blood. He may not have “killer eyes” (the warlord’s description of Michael Shannon’s Chief Warrant Officer), but he’s got a killer heart. A family man who only recently arranged to become a desk jockey, Nelson, as the movie presents it, gets slapped awake by 9/11 and fights the bureaucracy to win his shot on the ground. As soon as he arrives, he’s a master of everything: the weather patterns, how to map bombing coordinates for the B-52s that are going to blow Taliban-infested villages into the afterlife, and — of course — how to ride into battle on a horse while blasting a machine gun like a badass medieval knight.
The American soldiers of ODA 595 defeated the Taliban fighters they were up against, scoring an early blow against the forces of Islamic terrorism. Yet the Taliban, the last time anyone checked, hasn’t exactly jumped ship, and the whole issue of what we’ve accomplished in Afghanistan — forcing the enemy, to a degree, to go elsewhere — remains more than a little murky. “12 Strong,” though, builds a hermetic screen around the first three weeks of the conflict, holding it up to the light as if to say, “Don’t believe the nay-sayers! American heroism still rocks!” I believe that American heroism still does, but that doesn’t make “12 Strong” an illuminating, or overly exciting, war film. It’s more like cheerleading with ballistics. On its own terms, the film is watchable enough, but it’s blunt and stolid and under-characterized, and at 130 minutes it plods.
If there’s anything that great war films like “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Hurt Locker” have taught us, it’s that victory in combat doesn’t look like a street-fight action movie set in a wilderness hellhole. But “12 Strong” is a war film that wants you to feel good about the invincibility of American power. The film is built like a grungy combat video game, with each village treated like a new level and the agony of battle taking a backseat to the pounding thrill of force. The villain is a dastardly Taliban commander (Said Taghmaoui) who looks like a ratty guttersnipe Frank Zappa in black rags; he’s introduced executing a woman in front of her two tearful daughters for the crime of reading. That’s not an exaggeration of Taliban cruelty, but the way the film uses this brute to personify evil is at once reductive and uninteresting. (He’s scary, though not as scary as William Fichtner as a shaven-headed colonel who glowers like Gollum. )
That said, “12 Strong” is only mildly demagogic. It salutes the freedom fighters of Afghanistan, building token hints of drama around the relationship between Capt. Nelson and Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the Northern Alliance warlord he fights alongside but clashes with when it comes to military strategy. The two have something to teach each other, and I kept thinking how much this relationship would have popped in a David Lean film. But the script of “12 Strong,” written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig (adapting the 2009 bestseller “Horse Soldiers”), is pretty bare bones. When the general accuses Capt. Nelson of being a soldier and not a warrior, we’re eager to see Nelson grow into one, but the film barely bothers to demonstrate the difference.
The novelty that’s the chief selling point of “12 Strong” — the fact that the members of ODA 595 rode horses to make it through the treacherous terrain — doesn’t amount to very much; they all seem to know how, and it’s not as if contemporary soldiers on horseback look any more exotic than cowboys and Indians. The film’s most impressive aspect is its arid landscapes. “12 Strong” was shot in New Mexico, with the mountains there doubling for Afghanistan’s famously craggy and forbidding tableaux, and the director, Nicolai Fuglsig, and cinematographer, Rasmus Videbaek, use the locations to conjure what it might look like to wage war in an endless sprawling no-man’s land.
Visually, the terrain comes close to raising an existential question: What, exactly, are we fighting for in Afghanistan? The film slips in the pointed and now rather outdated argument that if the Taliban can be defeated, and Afghanistan eliminated as an Al Qaeda base, then there will be no more attacks like 9/11. Well, there haven’t been…but is that the reason why? “12 Strong” lends a shape of supreme purpose to a conflict that is still in search of one.