12 Strong

 

            Do you remember what you were doing on 9/11, when you first heard about the terrorist attacks?  Captain Mitch Nelson does.  He was on leave and between assignments, having just requested a transfer to a desk job.  He saw it on television, and looked on in disbelief, like the rest of America.  But unlike the rest of America, Captain Mitch Nelson was in a unique position to do something about it.  He immediately went to headquarters and volunteered to re-assemble his combat squad and take the fight to the Taliban.  And at that moment, the Army was looking for just this kind of opportunity to send a quick strike team in response.

            Captain Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) first talked his Sergeant, Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) into tearing up his retirement papers and going to Afghanistan with him.  The rest of the squad readily volunteered, because, they, too, wanted to strike back at the people who sent the remorseless terrorists.  But mounting an expedition turned out to be easier said than done.  For one thing, the “Northern Alliance” of Afghans loyal to the U.S. were, in actuality, three disparate groups led by rival warlords, who would just as soon fight each other as the Taliban, and frequently did.

            Captain Nelson's mission was unique:  after landing “in country,” make contact with a CIA operative (don't worry, he'll find you).  Then link up with one of the warlords, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), and let him lead you to the Taliban strongholds, then call in air support.  Yes, there's a plan to extract your unit, but quite honestly, you're not likely to make it back alive, anyway.  In Afghanistan, everything that could go wrong does.  And always has.

            What Nelson finds when he finally meets up with Dostum is a grizzled 50-something man who has been fighting his entire life.  And yes, he would like the American bombs to help him, but he's not about to tell Captain Nelson everything he knows.  In fact, at first, he seems to thank Sergeant Spencer is the “real” leader, and wants to address him instead.  Nelson finds that he's being tested immediately, and so the push-pull begins.

            One of the big surprises of this modern military expedition is that in the wilds of the Afghan mountain passes, the best available conveyance is....a horse.  Yes, our brave soldiers must have felt they were turning back the technology clock at least a hundred years, and some of them, of course, were better prepared as horsemen than others.  But the saddle-sore squad soon learned that the Afghan fighters knew what they were doing, even if there were lots of trust issues for the erstwhile allies.  At one point, after a fiery exchange with Nelson over tactics, General Dostum leaves in a huff, and takes his men with him.  But Captain Nelson is not one to be deterred easily.

            In fact, the whole operation takes on a World War One kind of vibe, where horses charge among tanks, and men fight in close quarters with little or no protection (why is nobody wearing a helmet?).  And yet, against all odds, our intrepid little band of soldiers actually manages to defeat a Taliban brigade of brigands, and re-capture a whole town. 

            It's a true story, and a flag-waving kind of movie.  But the combat violence is very real, and conveyed realistically.  It's not for the fainthearted. But if we had a whole army like these 12 brave soldiers, we'd be invincible.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association