In telling the story of the first American troops to fight back against al-Qaeda following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, 12 Strong operates within two modes: procedure and tribute. It is at its best in the former mode, particularly in director Nicolai Fuglsig's conception, staging, and execution of scenes of controlled combat. The film makes sense of the confusion in that combat by refusing to chop the action into bits of incomprehensible carnage. In fact, with the exception of a few instances where the impact of a bullet upon the human body is made plainly clear, the amount of blood within the carnage is minimal. Perhaps the fact that all 12 members of the group at the center of the conflict survived made the filmmakers' job a bit easier.
Whatever the case, the filmmaking is allowed to be a bit more elegant in its approach to combat than the norm. Entire shot set-ups involve multiple explosions at a time while the camera swoops around them. Instead of laboriously cutting between each active member of the group as they engage the enemy, Fuglsig utilizes multiple shots of the wide and long variety, and it's needless to say that the sound design of the firefights is pretty much immaculate. The film really does announce a compelling knew talent in this genre of filmmaking.
The conflict is established concisely, too: Following the attack on the Pentagon and the towers of the World Trade Center and the intended attack upon the United States Capitol building, the concern becomes finding a solid starting point to fight back. The captain is Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), and his crew are variously played by Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, and a few other, more interchangeable faces. Back at camp, the commanding officers are played by William Fichtner and Rob Riggle (appearing, rather curiously, as his own, former commanding officer during his time in service).
The job given to Nelson and his men: Meet up with Dostum (Navid Negahban), an operative with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, under whose hills Osama bin Laden, orchestrator of the attack on America, is rumored to be hiding. Nelson splits the team in half, with his half forced onto horseback for the duration of the fight. What follows is a procedural account of their attempt to take a stronghold belonging to the Taliban, the militarized political wing of al-Qaeda. This particular faction is led by a man named Razzan (Numan Acar), who puts an arbitrarily specific face on the threat where there doesn't need to be one.
The other mode of operation is in screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig's insistence upon telling only the American side of a story that is clearly much more elaborate than the film's procedural structure allows it to be. That the soldiers who are the subjects of the story are heroes isn't up for much debate, but they are resolutely defined by the fact that they are heroic. There isn't much room for complication or nuance in the screenplay (adapted from a nonfiction account by Doug Stanton). 12 Strong is a skillful war picture, but it also evades a lot of the complexity that clearly resided within this conflict.
Chris Hemsworth (Mitch Nelson), Michael Shannon (Spencer), Michael Pena (Diller), Trevante Rhodes (Milo), Navid Negahban (Dostum), Geoff Stults (Coffers), Taylor Sheridan (Brian), Rob Riggle (Bowers), William Fichtner (Mulholland), Elsa Pataky (Jean Nelson).
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig and written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton.
Rated R (war violence, language throughout).
Released on January 19, 2018.