Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Screenwriters: Ted Tally and Peter Craig, based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton.
Runtime: 130 mins.
Australian release date: 8 March 2018
Previewed at: Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney, on 26 February 2018.
Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, based on Doug Stanton’s book Horse Stories, covers the exploits of the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks on the USA that came to be known simply as ‘9/11’. Their mission? To negotiate with an Afghan warlord and endeavour to bring down the Taliban, who’d given a home and support to Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the atrocities perpetuated on America. The film (understandably) is ‘wrapped in the flag’ but manages to avoid an excess of gung-ho nationalism and, once it settles down, becomes a riveting exposé of the germination of a war that’s still going on even if ‘the enemy’ has changed its flag and evolved into ISIS.
The film centres on a crack team of soldiers, all of whom had to remain anonymous until recently because of security reasons. It is an eye-opener, revealing the facts behind the initial involvement of the Americans in Afghanistan, and it shows the determination of this small band of brothers who was prepared to put itself at risk in an attempt to put an end to a situation that would only get worse if ignored. As the years have passed, however, history has shown that little has changed and terror attacks around the world have not only increased but spread to other countries. It’s also arguable that the subsequent wars led by the US have bred a new generation of terrorists and the film has been criticised in some quarters for not acknowledging these effects. It should be remembered though that 12 Strong is not an analysis of events in the Middle East and is not pitching itself as such; it’s a dramatic recreation of a significant battle in the recent history of the region. No more, no less.
The Special Forces were led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a young soldier who was so affected by the terror attack on America that he re-enlisted for front-line duty, believing his strategic military expertise could help in bringing down the Taliban. He and his team, all highly trained and equally determined to fight for their country, were air-dropped into Afghanistan to make contact with a prominent leader in the Northern Alliance, General Dostum (Navid Negahban). By combining both forces, and with Nelson’s ability to call in air strikes, it was hoped they could capture a strategic town and bring down the renegade fighters. The Americans were led up into the mountains towards Mazar-i Sharif on horseback, which was the only way of accessing the hostile terrain. As there were only six horses provided by Dostum, the team had to split initially into two and, ultimately, into three, stretching their resources and adding a much greater degree of difficulty to their mission.
Supported by an excellent ensemble cast that includes Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stutts and Thad Luckinbill, to name a few, Hemsworth is believable as a young man who must engage with an Afghan warrior, with whom he appears to have nothing in common, while putting the welfare of his men first. It is a bit like watching a game of chess as Nelson and Dostum constantly try to figure out each other and stay ahead of the enemy. The battle scenes are brutal and unrelenting, making you feel as if you are there on the frontline. There is also a scene were the Taliban appear to be surrendering that is so terrifying and tense, you realise how difficult and almost insurmountable the problem was. Credit must be given to the special effects department, whose efforts were magnificently captured by the Danish cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek (his work is brilliant), and the equally crucial work of the sound department, who add so much to your sense of ‘being there’. The scenes with the horses are also expertly handled, considering the amount of explosions, smoke and mayhem surrounding them. 12 Strong is strong indeed, an action-packed and drama-filled war film that succeeds in revealing a little-known story - it reminds us that, regardless of our opinion of war, respect should be given to those who, right or wrong, are prepared to fight for our security.