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Saturday, January 20, 2018

12 Strong

12 Strong is an effective telling of a true story that doesn't get bogged down in a lot of unnecessary detail.  It feels genuine, and the facts of the actual event are pretty much all there.  It helps that the story is not very well known, so there is genuine suspense here.  It also helps that the battle scenes are well shot, and that the soldiers, while not exactly deep or compellingly written, have good chemistry together thanks to the performances.

Based on Doug Stanton's 2009 bestseller, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, the movie tells how after September 11th, an elite Special Forces unit comprised of 12 Green Berets led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), were dropped into Afghanistan in response to the attack.  Their mission was to join up with the Northern Alliance, headed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), to take on the Taliban and its Al Qaeda followers.  Abdul was to lead the Americans to the bases where the Taliban were hiding, using his knowledge of the landscape to get them there safely.  From there, Nelson's group could order bomb strikes from the air, and assist in any ground fighting.

The mission of course brought about many difficulties for Nelson and his team.  Not only were they unfamiliar with the land, but they were forced to ride on horseback, since it was the only way to make their way through the sand and mountains.  Since none of the men had any experience riding horses, this was easier said than done.  They also had to create a bond with the Northern Alliance against their common enemy, and some of the better scenes in the film involves Nelson and Abdul forging a bond that is shaky at first, but grows stronger as they spend time on the trail and in battle.  The screenplay by Peter Craig and Ted Tally never quite goes too deep into these men and their private lives, but the performances rise above this, and create some genuine emotional bonds.  Of particular note is the friendship between Nelson and his Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon).  There are also some individually good performances from Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes (from Moonlight) as members of Nelson's team.

But it is the intensity of the battle scenes that really sets 12 Strong apart.  First-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish photojournalist, really gives the audience the sense of being in the midst of combat.  And while the battles are edited at a somewhat rapid pace, they are never confusing or hard to follow.  We may not have a deep personal connection with these men, but we feel everything they experience in battle, and we become involved.  As the men get closer to their destination, the battles appropriately become more intense, and by the end, I felt a little bit emotionally drained in a good way.  A good war movie can put you through the wringer in terms of emotion, and that is what this one does more than once.

The war sequences are so good, they made me forget some of the problems the film had early on.  The opening moments, depicting the U.S. soldiers with their families and wives feels a bit trite and cliched.  At the very least, the filmmakers waste very little time on these moments, and send us to the scenes that matter quite quickly.  Also unnecessary is a scene where a Taliban soldier kills a teacher for helping girls learn reading and math.  I understand why the scene is in the movie, but it does feel more than a little gratuitous and heavy-handed.  It's simply a moment where the audience is supposed to sneer and boo the villain.  It gets the reaction that is intended, but it still feels cheep and unsatisfying.

12 Strong is never quite as deep as it could have been, but for what it is, it's effective and does a good job of putting us in the middle of the chaos of the battlefield without sacrificing the narrative.   Even if the characters are not fleshed out that well, the movie still honors them by showing their bravery and the impossible odds that they faced, and that is enough.

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