Kyle J. Steenblik

12 Strong is Impactful and Important [Review]

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12 Strong
Directed by: Nicolai Fuglsig
Written by: Ted Tally, Peter Craig
Based on Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill
Production companies: Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media, Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date January 19, 2018
Running time 129 minutes
rated R for war violence and language throughout
4 stars out of 5

Chris Hemsworth (“Thor,” “The Avengers” films) and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road,” “Nocturnal Animals”) star in “12 Strong,” a powerful new war drama from Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media and Jerry Bruckheimer Films that tells the declassified true story of the Horse Soldiers. Based on the best-selling book Horse Soldiers, it is story of heroism based on true events that unfolded a world away in the aftermath of 9/11. “12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Navid Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghan horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.

12 Strong is an honest historical dramatization of actual events, made with an eye toward journalistic integrity and a careful moderation of editorialization and sanitization of its subjects.  This handling of the subject material, which was adapted from the journalist Doug Stanton’s novel Horse Soldiers, and directed by a photojournalist, should not be surprising.  It is however refreshingly surprising given the trend of overtly jingoistic films portraying American Soldiers as near idealized caricatures of the all-American hero.  While there was no doubt some embellishment—both positive and negative—for the writing of the film, it was reserved and kept within believable limitations of reality.  As I have now tried to describe this film to others I found myself using the phrase “reality based dramatization” to illustrate how I felt about both the writing and directorial decisions made in 12 Strong.  I found it informative, moving, and thought provoking, while simultaneously being emotionally moving.

One aspect of 12 Strong that I found to be not only satisfying, but a key to its success, was the decision to give a significant amount of time to Afghanistan, and the Afghan fighters of the Northern Alliance.  Anything else would have been a tremendous disservice to the story, and the surviving individuals depicted on screen.  In the first battles in Afghanistan it was the Afghan people that did a majority of the heavy lifting, and suffered the most loss.  As the film follows General Abdul Rashid Dotsum and the 12 US Army Green Berets fighting from horseback to liberate Mazari-I Sharif, it is made evident who has the most to lose, and what has already been lost, in this war.

I was struck by the decisions made by first time feature film director Nicolai Fuglsig made.  Using the lenses of the camera to project more than was said, and the measured actions of the cast to convey clear meaning to each scene.  It was a beautiful blending of art and journalism in a medium and context in which both can clash if handled without care.  As we move further past the events of 2001, films produced with this level of integrity will become increasingly more important to understanding our history.

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