Depending how you look at it, 12 Strong‘s insistence on bypassing the usual heavy-handed political messages and overt emotional punches that pertain to war genre films will either be a welcome or rejected additive. It’s a film that’s pretty standard (at least in comparison to genre greats like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down), but by no means does this indicate a sub-par production as the ensemble on-hand elevate their characters beyond the limitations of what the script affords them.
Based on the real-life account of the first American soldiers to respond to the 2001 September 11th attacks, Nicolai Fuglsig‘s film initially places its focus on Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a Special Forces Team Leader who is desperate to bypass his assigned work so he can get in the fight. Fuelled by expected emotion, Nelson’s assistant Team Leader Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) convinces their commander (Rob Riggle) to put their heads on the chopping block, so to speak.
Prior to Nelson and his team (which includes such familiar faces as Michael Pena, Geoff Stults, and Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes) entering Afghanistan, the film offers up slight emotional back-and-forth in some of their home lives (Hemsworth’s real-life wife Elsa Pataky playing his on-screen missus for added effect), and whilst it allows some humanisation for the characters, it’s the moments after their deployment that 12 Strong starts to resonate.
The soldiers meeting Alliance leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban) really showcases the strength of Peter Craig and Ted Tally‘s script as Dostum is a character of immense complexity; having fought the Soviets and been involved in the Afghan power struggle, his allegiance throughout is never certain, and it’s his quiet sit-down with the team (where he notices Nelson’s eyes aren’t “killer eyes”) that only reiterates his dangerous uncertainty.
Under the direction of someone like Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott it’s hard not to wonder how long-lasting 12 Strong could’ve been as this is a story that deserves recognition. Fuglsig (making his American feature film debut) by no means lacks talent, and the product on hand is as dynamic as it is earnest, but a greater emphasis on the depth of connection between these men would’ve raised this investing tale to a status of potential classic proportions.