Directed by: Nicolai Fuglsig
Written by: Ted Tally, Peter Craig, Based on the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Navid Negahban
Swift shot: Everyone who was alive on September 11th, 2001 knows exactly where they were and what they were doing that morning. It’s one of those moments that gets captured in time like a chrysalis and from that pupal stage we were all born anew as students of a new reality. So many of us had wild fantasies about directly confronting the enemy, head on, and making “the shot” – the shot that would end the life of our persistent tormentor, Osama Bin Laden. He famously said that we would lose, because we love life, where his troops loved death. Well, ODA 595 with the help of the “Northern Alliance” decided to send as many of those fuckers to “paradise” as the Pentagon would allow. 12 Strong tells their story, or at least the best that Hollywood can.
A quick note before I begin my review, many veterans have opted to not see this film because of the disgusting remarks of one of the supporting actors. The irony is obviously lost on him, or he just doesn’t really care about the role or what it represents to the people that he so despises. Here’s some fun Michael Shannon quotes: “The big red dildo running through the middle of our country needs to be annexed to be its own country of moronic assholes. You can call it the United States of Moronic Fucking Assholes.” Now he’s playing Hal Spencer, a patriot who fits the mold of the people Shannon hates and in one other interview said belong in an urn.
To Michael Shannon, I say, “I have always respected you as an actor, and 12 Strong is no exception; you are a fine actor. But it’s a good thing that you make a living pretending to be a better person, because I sincerely hope you grew a little portraying Hal Spencer/Bob Pennington.”
Moving on . . .
Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) is a Green Berets Captain of Operational Detachment Alpha ODA-595 (an A-Team) that is losing its tenured Chief Warrant Officer, Hal Spencer (Shannon) to a much deserved retirement. Captain Nelson wants to serve his country, but for reasons that are never really explained in the film, he has decided to leave his unit and take a desk job following the Chief Warrant Officer’s retirement. Without a Captain to command his A-Team, Nelson’s former troops are stuck in limbo – on September 11th, no less.
Nelson wants to be there for his wife and young daughter, but his men are not happy with his apparent retreat. Just about the entire team is pretty pissed off at Nelson, and they let him know it.
But once the attacks happen, Nelson realizes he needs to keep the team together. So, he convinces the old, weary Spencer to rip up his retirement papers, which in turn prevents Lieutenant Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle) from breaking up the team. Bowers is disgusted with Nelson for choosing his career (a desk assignment) over working with his men in the field. Given the drama of the day, you’d think he would cut Nelson some slack, but quite the contrary, he belittles Nelson to his core. Obviously, he does let him keep his team or we’d have no movie.
Now, almost a month later, they are in Uzbekistan (Camp K2) and are preparing to launch the invasion into Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban. Nelson actually has to interview for the assignment, pretty much like a job interview or bidding for a contract, actually. Incidentally, I always assumed the Generals picked the troops without that type of input. Of course ODA 595 gets the dream mission, to lead the assault against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and bring pain to them courtesy of the Red, White, and Motherfucking Blue!
Meanwhile the so-called “Northern Alliance” is practically on the verge of a civil war as the Taliban has executed its former leader, and the CIA has managed a fragile relationship with one of the tribe’s most respected and feared leaders, General Dostum (Negahban). [Swift aside: the CIA agent portrayed in the scene is Mike Spann, one of the bravest Americans to ever walk the Earth. If you don’t know his story, LEARN IT!]
Uzbek born, Dostum has been fighting the Soviets since he was sixteen, and he’s in his fifties when the Americans arrive to fight the Taliban. He’s incredibly brave and brash, and instantly he seems to mirror Colonel Bowers’ attitude about this brawny American Captain Nelson. In fact, he all but ignores him, because he doesn’t have killer eyes.
That will change.
One of the fairly unique aspects of the Green Berets is that they historically embed with indigenous fighters and let them do the lion’s share of fighting after the Green Berets have trained them up. At least that is usually how it goes.
With Afghanistan, the mission might be the same, but these nomadic lancers have been fighting enemies for centuries. In fact, Nelson wants to earn the respect of Dostum, and he insists on fighting alongside Dostum’s men. But Dostum is worried that the American people will flee Afghanistan if even one member of ODA 595 is killed. He’s taken extreme measures to keep them protected which I won’t reveal here as it is a powerful reminder of what is at stake.
On the other side of the battlefield is a shitstain on humanity, Taliban commander named Razzan (Numan Acar) who is carrying out the barbaric “teachings” of the death-cult book to the letter. In one painful scene, we “learn” why Dostum can’t allow the Taliban to occupy Afghanistan. To be sure, Dostum is no saint, but Special Forces are used to working with less than savory individuals. But is this supposed career boosting Captain with kind eyes and no combat experience going to be able to convince this mounted warlord that he is the right American for the job?
Essentially that is the real story in 12 Strong, the bond that forms between these two men and how the trust is earned through combat.
I won’t say 12 Strong is an exciting film, because it has a ton of downtime (just like real military life). But once the fighting begins, it is incredible to watch how Fuglsig balances the shots to give the audience a front-row seat to the carnage and uses wider drone and crane shots to capture the battlefield drama. And what is the most incredible part of this film is that these guys actually did this!
They got to Afghanistan, and in less than three weeks they routed the principle fighters of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and they did it on horseback. What is miraculous is how effectively they executed this continued assault and how they established America as a true fighting force in the region in a matter of weeks.
Many times we think that American military supremacy is based on our state-of-the-art arsenal, but once the boots and hooves hit the dust in 12 Strong, it’s the enduring heart of the warrior that wins the day.
This film and this story are long overdue. Do yourself a favor and see this one as soon as you can, and don’t miss it in theaters or you will regret it.