Film Review: 12 Strong

True story of Special Forces soldiers infiltrating Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, told with unabashed jingoism.
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The best thing going for 12 Strong is that it's based on a true story about a previously classified mission into Afghanistan to disrupt the Taliban immediately after 9/11. Nothing if not patriotic, it's a war movie that essentially ignores everything except the duty and cost of good to defeat evil.

Adapted from Doug Stanton's best-seller Horse Soldiers, the movie is sincere and old-fashioned, taking an uncomplicated view of events that were anything but. Warner Bros. is betting that there's always a market for real-life heroism, without all the messy details of historical and cultural context.

Making his feature debut after a career of award-winning commercials, Nicolai Fuglsig strips 12 Strong down to bare-bones testosterone and second-hand sentiment. After a montage of terrorist attacks on the U.S., we meet the men of ODA 595, a Special Forces unit with experience in Somalia.

Although he's been offered a desk job in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) fights for the right to lead his men on a mission to Afghanistan. With him are veterans Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Peña), Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes) and their less-fleshed-out colleagues.

Although he has never been in combat, Nelson impresses superiors Mulholland (William Fichtner) and Bowers (Rob Riggle), who name his team the first to sneak into Afghanistan. Their goal is Mazar-i-Shariff, a Taliban stronghold. Nelson promises to capture it in three weeks, before winter weather sets in.

Nelson teams up with Dostum (Navid Negahban), a warlord who commands a ragtag band of volunteers on horseback. Their first target is the village of Bescham, where we see Taliban villain Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar) executing a schoolteacher.

Taliban tanks and missiles easily repulse Dostum's cavalry. Nelson devises a different mission, sending Diller and others to take over a valley known as the Tiangi Gap, a direct route to Mazar. Nelson's bravery persuades Dostum to give up his own plans and join with ODA 595.

The filmmakers do a good job explaining why and how Nelson's men attack the Tiangi Gap, but are less successful in depicting the actual battle. After a while the bombs, missiles, grenades, rockets, even the landscapes blur together in a deafening, exhausting sequence.

Hemsworth and Peña seem a bit incongruous, more movie stars than Special Forces, while the usually reliable Shannon plays his role without any shading or nuance. That's a problem with 12 Strong as a whole—it's too gung-ho and adrenalized to bother with consequences. Like a high body count of mostly anonymous Afghans.

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