A remarkable story inspired “12 Strong,” but the remarkable story actually told by “12 Strong” is a different remarkable story. Maybe the story is slightly different, and maybe it’s a lot different, but one thing is for sure — it happens to different characters.
For a movie like this, an inspirational historical drama, this is a bit of a problem, because half the satisfaction comes from knowing (or believing) that everything on screen is at least grounded in fact. But in “12 Strong,” it’s all dramatized. Chris Hemsworth plays a character based on a real person, but the other characters are fictional, which means the incidents and the details of the battles are fictional, too.
At least this much is true: In the early days of the Afghanistan War, with the World Trade Center wreckage still smoldering in downtown Manhattan, a group of 12 special forces guys joined forces with a horseback unit of the Northern Alliance, led by General Abdul Dostum. Vastly outnumbered, they still sent the Taliban and Al Qaeda into retreat. This story is the subject of the book, “Horse Soldiers,” by Doug Stanton, which formed the basis of the film.
Hemsworth is Mitch Nelson, a captain newly transferred to desk duty, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 take place. He immediately asks to go into combat, forms a team of equally hearty soldiers, and lands what his superiors think is next-door to a suicide mission. Like him, his men can’t wait to get into the action. These are seriously tough guys.
The logistics of the battle scenes have some interest, in that two sides are oddly matched. The Americans and the Northern Alliance fighters just have guns, while the Taliban and Al Qaeda have guns, rocket launchers and tanks. However, the Americans also have planes in the sky that can drop missiles. These are the most powerful weapons, capable of inflicting tremendous damage, but they’re blunt instruments that have a way of missing entire armies. So lots of fighting has to be done on the ground.
Chris Hemsworth is, as always, appealing, and Michael Shannon, as the radio operator, plays a nice guy for once, and it suits him. Best of all is Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir on “Homeland) as the real-life character, General Dostum, presented here as a philosopher-warrior, prone to pronouncements such as “Your mission will fail because you fear death.“
But the movie is long, too long at 130 minutes, and the battle scenes are difficult to follow. This may sound like a ridiculous complaint, but the problem is complicated by the fact that neither the Northern Alliance nor the Taliban wore uniforms. Combine that with quick cutting, and just about the only time you can be absolutely sure which side you’re looking at is if someone is driving a tank or detonating a suicide vest.
Gradually, the sameness and the impenetrability of the scenes wear the audience down. And once you know that you’re exerting all this effortful attention to follow battle scenes that probably didn’t happen, the whole enterprise hardly seems worth the trouble. It also doesn’t help that the Afghanistan conflict doesn’t feel like history yet, nor quite like a victory yet. So it’s difficult to get into the celebratory spirit.
Still it might be enough that ”12 Strong“ makes you feel good that the United States still produces guys like this. Too bad we didn’t get to know about the real guys and their actual story.