Saturday 28 March 2020

Movie Review: 12 Strong (2018)

An action war movie based on real events, 12 Strong benefits from stirring action scenes and a strong connection to remarkable facts. But the film is overlong and often wades into traditional jingoism.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) reverses his decision to seek a desk job and accepts an assignment to lead his unit of 12 men into Afghanistan. Nelson has no combat experience but is respected by his men, including Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Peña).

The unit is dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan with orders to connect with the forces of anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader General Dostum (Navid Negahban) and storm the strategically vital city of Mazar-i Sharif. Nelson finds it difficult to earn Dostum's respect, and his men have to learn horsemen skills to navigate the mountainous terrain. And although Nelson can call upon airstrikes, the Taliban are dug-in with heavy armaments and are much more familiar with the local terrain.

The first American combat mission after the 9/11 attacks was a secret incursion eventually chronicled in the 2009 book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. The script by Ted Tally and Peter Craig is brought to the screen by first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, and the film combines plenty of action scenes with some character backfill and culture clash sequences. Fuglsig is more comfortable with combat, and when the bullets start flying 12 Strong settles into a whizzy groove, over the top for sure but edited into welcome coherence.

The attempts to round some of the key members of Nelson's crew into relatable people are laudable but ultimately futile. This is a war film where tough guys just grimace and carry on, and none of the jokeyness, serious conversations and difficult-talks-with-the-wives add much nuance.

The thrust to humanize men of war includes a concerted effort on the relationship between Nelson and Dostum, and here Fuglsig finds more success if well within genre conventions. East meets west, a veteran fighter assesses an untested possible ally, and fear of the unknown cuts both ways. Both men will have to come through for each other, and while the tension between them adds to the drama, the outcome is never in doubt.

The trio of Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña provide sufficient star presence to propel the action without overpowering the narrative. One Taliban commander is afforded the dubious honour of representing the enemy, dressed all in black all the time for emphasis, and here the script falls flat by providing no context whatsoever to the other side of the conflict.

But the greatest threat to the film's success emerges in the form of creeping length, almost every scene unnecessarily prolonged. Nelson promised to achieve his objectives in a remarkable three weeks; at 130 minutes, the film did not need to feel as long.

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