In the last 16-plus years, there have been any number of movies tackling the American military response to 9/11. And they seem to fall into either one of two categories: shameless shoot-em-up videogames draped in patriotic bunting (American Sniper, Act of Valor) or more sober and nuanced examinations of what it means to fight (Zero Dark Thirty, Restrepo). For a movie produced by red-meat action maestro Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Thor himself as the face of camo-clad vengeance, 12 Strong somewhat surprisingly manages to fall (just barely) on the nuanced side of the scale. Even if you can feel the film’s director, Nicolai Fuglsig, battling with himself to get it there.
Based on a recently declassified true account first chronicled in Doug Stanton’s 2009 book Horse Soldiers, 12 Strong tells the story of ODA 595 — an elite Special Forces unit that was the first to fight in Afghanistan following 9/11. These Green Berets are comprised of 11 soldiers plus their leader, Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth). Their mission, during which they operated under the code name Task Force Dagger, was to hook up with a Northern Alliance warlord (Navid Negahban) and battle their way to the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, calling in airstrikes until the Taliban (and the Al Qaeda forces they harbored) could be wiped off the map. The American troops were ridiculously outmanned as they fought on inhospitable and unfamiliar terrain, and were forced to travel and wage war on horseback. It was a suicide mission. They would likely never return. Or, at least, most of them.
The Australian Hemsworth may not be, literally speaking, an American. But with his broad shoulders, square granite jaw, and Marvel-approved Norse god physique, he’s the kind of red-white-and-blue fighting machine who, if we’re being honest, we want to see representing us on screen. Even if he doesn’t possess the “killer eyes” that the Northern Alliance leader sees in his second-in-command Cal Spencer (played by Michael Shannon, who seems to sport the eyes of a killer no matter what movie he’s in). The unit also includes Michael Peña and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, both of whom manage to bring some complexity, humor, and humanity to their characters when they’re not being fired upon.
The mission, of course, turns out to be a success. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood sinking millions into the story otherwise. And, for the most part, it’s a tense, action-packed war movie well-told. At least, as far as it goes. Fuglsig and his writers Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 & 2) aren’t particularly interested in the bigger picture of what happened after the mission — the decade and a half of frustration, casualties, and ultimate stalemate that lay ahead. It’s sole interest is an uncomplicated image of unfiltered American heroism. The fewer follow-up questions asked, the better. It’s a rousing movie, but not what you’d call a very introspective one.