1. Oh, to live in the world of 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers again. The world was not any simpler in late 2001 than it is now, but it sure did feel that way, and if nothing else, 12 Strong reminds us of that brief moment in American history where it felt like we could just do something that would fix everything. The film begins with a happy family smiling and acting like nothing is ever going to be the matter, and then the 9/11 attacks happen and everyone just springs into action to go get those sumbitches that did this. Remember that time? Remember when you saw the footage of the forces heading into Afghanistan, and you felt pride, and hope, and relief, that the horrors you just witnessed would not go unavenged, and people who attacked us were bad people, and we were the good people, and this is all going to turn out right and just in the end? Remember that? 12 Strong sure does.
2. I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense in the morass of chaos and madness and confusion that mark this current political moment that the movies would turn back to this time in late 2001, before it all got screwy and messy, as a bit of a balm. Afghanistan has fallen apart, we’re still stuck in so many little wars it’s impossible to keep track of them, and we’ve reacted to all this by electing a person who has made our country the world’s punchline … and it could all, probably will, get so much worse. Why wouldn’t we want to look back to late 2001, when a group of soldiers fighting for justice could set things correct in the world, kicking some Al Qaeda ass and lettin’ those terrorists know what’s what? In the world of 12 Strong, there’s nothing wrong with the world that a little American grit, determination and ingenuity can’t solve. This could only be true if you freeze American history at the precise moment in which this movie takes place (and assuredly not even then). But you understand the inclination. You understand why we would all want to pretend.
3. The 12 Strong of the title are a battalion of American soldiers, CIA paramilitary and Special Forces troops led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who has recently retired to spend time with his wife and young daughter but changes his mind once he turns on the Today show on a certain Tuesday morning in September. He re-enlists—the movie goes into unnecessary detail on difficulties he had getting back in charge, as if there’s any way they don’t have Thor lead the cavalry—and gathers his team, including his grizzled second-in-command (Michael Shannon), a wisecracking family man (Michael Pina) and a would-be tough guy who’s secretly sensitive and caring underneath (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes). Next thing you know, they’re on a plane to Afghanistan and then, suddenly, they’re the first troops sent into battle. Their mission is to push through a mountain pass and assist the Northern Alliance in taking out an Al Qaeda leader and liberating the Afghan people. Because of the difficulty of the Afghan mountains, the only way they can navigate the terrain is by horseback. Thus: The Horse Soldiers.
4. The film was shot in New Mexico, and I hope I am not doing a disservice to the brave soldiers who fought in this battle to say that it does, in fact, look like it was filmed in New Mexico. Director Nicolai Fuglsig is good at showing a group of men ride horses in slow motion into battle, but he’s not particularly skilled at embedding it all in a specific time and place: You need to feel like these soldiers, home safe in their beds just two weeks before, are in someplace foreign and confusing on the other side of the world, but you can’t help but sense that they just rolled out of their trailer. Casting Hemsworth is a big part of this problem. Hemsworth is a fine actor and a very fine Thor, but he is so clearly stamped Hero from beat one of this movie that you never go on any sort of journey with him; you know he’s going to save the day because he’s Thor, dammit. (He’s not the only actor wasted—Shannon, in particular, seems unusually disengaged here.) There’s something almost charmingly doltish about the way Hemsworth’s captain is so relentlessly heroic here, particularly when circumstances, as they tend to do in Afghanistan, reveal him to be relatively powerless, particularly when it comes to dealing with a potential Northern Alliance ally (Navid Negahban). But the movie doesn’t waste a lot of time worrying about the complications of Afghanistan: It always trusts that Thor will plow his way through and do something superhuman when America needs him to.
5. The big climactic sequence of the film, when the horses that our heroes spend most of the movie struggling to ride are forced into action, is stirring in its own way, even if it turns the fog of the battlefield into something as linear and simple as an 8-bit video game. (This is the only war movie I can remember in which the best battlefield strategy is just to keep charging forward, like Frogger.) The movie does have its moments of power, because it does harken back to a time when you could believe in stuff like this, that a group of brave heroes could go kill the bad guys and fix what was broken. You want to believe that it could have ever been this simple, that we could win the big battle and go home happy. The movie pays some lip service after the big victory that Afghanistan is going to be harder to win than our heroes think, that this is the start of something ugly rather than the end of a stalwart charge. But the movie doesn’t want to live in that world. It wants to pretend Afghanistan was won, right there, with those soldiers on horseback. I wanted to pretend it would be that easy once; we all did. But 12 Strong hangs onto the myth like a talisman. The movie has its moments. But Thor wrestling with the Hulk is more realistic and, frankly, more relevant to the current facts on the ground. If it would have been this easy, life would be so much better now. But it’s never that easy. The movie hasn’t learned that lesson, and, frankly, neither have we.
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Writer: Peter Craig, Ted Tally
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Navid Negahban, Trevante Rhodes, Michael Peña, Geoff Stults, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle
Release Date: January 19, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.