Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

12 Strong

Grade : B Year : 2018 Director : Nicolai Fuglsig Running Time : 2hr 10min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

There’s an inherent problem for filmmakers who have been tasked with making war films post-“Saving Private Ryan,” and it comes with the fact that Steven Spielberg changed the way combat was filmed forever. Few films have really been able to nail that template that Spielberg set up, and I think part of it comes with another fundamental way that war films have changed in the past 20 years- the nature of combat has changed considerably in the past 30 years. The best film to capture that shift was Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down,” about a failed extraction in Somalia from 1993. That film was also a production by Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produces this film, which starts off as a good successor to both “Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down,” but, by the end, becomes a standard actioner that loses sight of what makes its story unique.

“12 Strong” starts off with a montage of news clips outlining the terrorist attacks that preceded the tragic attack on September 11, and then we see 9/11 from the perspective of Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who has just put in his notice for a desk job after putting in time with his Special Forces unit, but what happens that day inspires him to get back into the fray. He wants he and his unit, the ODA 595 Green Berets, to be among the first on the ground striking back in Afghanistan, and he gets his wish after some convincing of his superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers (played by Rob Riggle, who actually served under Bowers himself when he was in the military). Nelson and his soldiers are part of Task Force Dagger, which is set to deliver a swift and decisive blow to the Taliban, who had shielded al Queda in Afghanistan, by collaborating with Northern warlords who wish to take out the Taliban themselves. Nelson’s unit, a dozen strong, is put together with General Abdul Dostum (Navid Negahban), who is the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and they quickly discover that the military’s ideas for taking on the Taliban are going to be trickier than they hoped.

One of the “hooks,” if you will, about the story of Nelson’s troops is that they end up riding into battle with the Taliban on horseback with Dostum’s men, due to the mountainous terrain they have to go through. Honestly, that might be the least interesting part of this story compared to the political challenges laid out with joining up with Dostum, or really, any of the Northern warlords, over the others, and the push-and-pull between Nelson and Dostum as they attempt to work together in a complicated military landscape. I was engrossed by that, and following the 595 as they have to be split up at first (because Dostum only had 6 horses, at the time), and then, as they take the lead in challenging the Taliban and cutting off one of their supply routes, is a strength on the part of the screenplay by Ted Tally (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and Peter Craig (“The Town”) as they adapt the book by Doug Stanton. Unfortunately, by the time we see the big, final battle with the Taliban that opens the doors to the first major victory in Afghanistan, the film has become all sound and fury under the direction of Nicolai Fuglsig, a newcomer with a good eye for action, but doesn’t quite have an interest in characters when the bullets start to fly, which is a shame because this cast (Hemsworth, Negahban, and Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and “Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes) is solid the whole way through. Much of the second half of the film is shot like a video game, and it’s unfortunate because it starts off on good footing for a character-driven battle epic, but ends up a generic piece of “rah rah” military cinema, when it deserves more.

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