12 Strong (2018) Review
A STEADFAST (YET SLIGHTLY GENERIC)
MILTARY BIO PIC
On September 11th, 2001, the entire nation of the United States faced an imaginable horror; an act of terrorism, which was a coordinated attack from the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda. In New York City, two commercial airplanes (American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175) were hijacked and rammed into the both towers of the World Trade Center, while another commercial airplane (American Airlines Flight 77) was hijacked and crashed into the western rim of the Pentagon in Washington DC (i.e Arlington, Virginia). At the same time, a fourth commercial airline plane (United Airlines Flight 93) was hijacked and, while on-board passengers attempted to subdue the hijackers, the plane itself crashed landed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania (never reaching its intended destination). Through paramount fear, untold devastation and unimageable panic, the events that place that day took the lives of 2,996 people, injuring over 6,000 others, and estimated over $10 million dollars into infrastructure and property damage. It was a horrifying turning point for the people of the United States, facing a wide range of emotion and concerns to what would come next in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Within time, the “war on terror” (as the news media dubbed it) began to form in the Afghanistan with US military forces battle against Al-Qaeda’s insurgent forces, which somewhat reached a pinnacle point in 2011 when US forces (under a covert mission) found and killed the Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden. It was a huge moment on the US involvement with this terrorist organization, but still the remains of what happened on 9/11 in 2001 still haunts many (even to this day). Given the palpability of this transgression and how it touched many American lives, Hollywood (within time) started to churn out feature films that touched upon the September 11th attacks, with such movies like United 93, World Trade Center, Into the Fire, 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty, and several others; finding each one given a somewhat different perspective (cinematically) on what happened either before, during, or after the results of that terrorist attack. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures (along with Alcon Entertainment and Jerry Bruckheimer Films) and director Nicolai Fuglsig present the newest cinematic film on the “war on terror” with the movie 12 Strong. Does this movie find its meaning amongst its action set piece or is a muddled “one and down” counterattack of Hollywood wartime propaganda?
Beginning on the morning of September 11th, 2001, America mourns the devastating terrorism attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Filled with anger and determination from these recent attack, Alpha 595 captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), despite filing for a cushy desk so he could stay close to his family, request to be reinstated as his team’s leader so he can go overseas to defend the United States. Given into some persuasion from Nelson’s assistant team leader Chief Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle) agrees to send Nelson’s unit out, joined by comrades like Spencer, Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Pena), and Sergeant Ben Milo (Trevante) to go to Afghanistan. Once there, Mitch and his team are tasked with rendezvousing with the Northern Alliance’s General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), with the two leaders joining forces to deal the Taliban a major (and decisive) blow. With their primary mission to assume control of the Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif insight (hoping to accomplish their goal before the weather makes the task unbearable)), Nelson and Dostum’s contrasting personalities threaten to derail the mission, forcing the two to try to overcome their differences for the greater good of the task at hand.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
To be honest, I remember that day as if it was yesterday. I was in school (11th grade) and I was my math class when my principal went on the school’s intercom and said what had happened in New York City. Immediately after that was when the bell rang and I went to my next class. It was dead silence in those hallways as I think all of us were stunned. I do remember a few students were crying as a few had parents (or relatives) that worked on the Pentagon in Washington DC. Eventually (roughly twenty-five minutes into the next class), while everyone (my fellow peers and my teacher and other staff members) watched the events continue to unfold on the news channels, it was announced that school would end early that day. Even after I was home for that afternoon from school, I still couldn’t believe what happened (as I’m sure almost the nation felt the same way). Sadness, fear, anger, and hatred were just some of the emotions that swirled around within me the rest of the day (and the few days following the attacks). Like many, it took me awhile to return to a normal state of mind after the September 11th attacks, but I would never forget that day and how it molded our nation (for better or worse) into the future.
Of course, Hollywood would use this turning point in the US to create feature film that surround the attacks. While I’ve seeing a few one of them (the ones listed in the opening paragraph), perhaps my favorite one would have to be Zero Dark Thirty. While it doesn’t physically display the 9/ 11 attacks in the movie, the film, which was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, showed (underneath a cinematic lens) the trials and tribulations of the manhunt to find Osama Bin Laden and how the actual mission took place that ended the notorious Al-Qaeda leader. It was riveting, nerve-racking, and quite a poignant film. Plus, the movie did feature a ton of recognizable faces (i.e. Chastain, Clarke, Strong, Chandler, Gandolfini, Ramirez, Edgerton, Pratt, etc.).
This bring me back to talking about the film 12 Strong, the 2018 film that talks about the covert attack that took place days following the September 11th attacks in 2001. I didn’t hear much about this movie in the way of internet “buzz”, but I do remember seeing the film’s trailer a few times (when I went to my weekly movie theater outings). I looked at the film’s cast and was quite impressive with it, so the movie definitely intrigued me. Unfortunately, this movie sort of fell through the cracks for me. It’s funny…. I did purchase a ticket to see this movie (on its opening night) back when it got released in January, but I took a nap beforehand and actually woke up a few hours later; completely missing the 7 pm showing of the film. The next day, I went on vacation for a week and then became too busy to see this movie after I got back. Then (when I had free time), I chose to see other more prominent films in theaters (towards the beginning of February). Thus, my viewing experience for seeing 12 Strong had to be when it got released on home release (I bought the Blu-ray copy of the film) and even then… I kept on delaying on physically writing my review for this movie for quite some time. So, yeah, this movie really did fall through the cracks. However, it’s finally here (hooray!). So, what did I think of the movie? Well, it I actually thought it was pretty good. While it does struggle in some areas, 12 Strong does succeed in being a solid action film that does honor the real-life soldiers that participated in this once “classified” mission.
12 Strong is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, who makes his directorial debut with this film. Given the fact he doesn’t have much in the way of theatrical features, Fuglsig actually handles himself pretty well as the film’s director and does a surprisingly good job throughout most of the picture in crafting a story on the “Horse Soldiers” tale. To his credit, he succeeds, helming a military action feature with enough gumption and understanding of when to be loud and boisterous (i.e. during the action scenes) and when to focus on the quieter moments (i.e. the relationship between Mitchell and Dostum). Speaking of the action, 12 Strong does offer plenty of action sequences that I’m sure “action movie” buffs will like, especially during the final confrontation sequences in the third act. Fuglsig also brings a sense of “soldierly love” with most of the 595 team, with most having special bond (thanks to the actors selected for the roles) as the unit does feel like a cohesive one of which the film highlights in a good way. Perhaps the big reason that I like the movie was the fact that many (including myself) really didn’t know how this particular endeavor that happened immediately after the 9/11 attacks. I do recall seeing the most news articles and several books that talked about the mission almost a decade later (roughly 2009 or 2010), but never payed much attention to them. So, I watched the movie with a fresh open mind and really did enjoy the feature for bringing “to light” a relatively unknown military mission that was a very poignant piece in the military campaign against the “war on terror”. Thus, Fuglsig does (at the very least) get credit for pull off and assembling a narrative story like this and executing to a certain degree of theatrical entertainment. Interestingly, if you think about it, Fuglsig is very much like the film’s character of Mitchell Nelson (a young and unexperienced individual who’s out to proven himself on the task at hand). Thus, 12 Strong is one of those rare occurrences when “life intimates art” or “art intimates life” things …if you know what I mean.
On a technical level, 12 Strong is a pretty solid, especially given the fact the film is considered (and presented) as a war film. Given the fact that the feature is a military action drama and the geographical location of the film’s story, there’s not much in the way of actual set pieces, but rather the film invest location sets in order to tell majority of its narrative. Thus, the locations in the movie, which were filmed in and around New Mexico, feels very much like the desolate and harsh environments in Afghanistan. So, big props to the location scout team and Christopher Glass (production designs) for finding all the various locales and vistas used in the 12 Strong. Additionally, the film’s costume designs by Daniel J. Lester, set decorations by Wilhelm Pfau, and the team behind all the weapon props should be mentioned for their efforts on the project, which really do help add that believable quality to the feature. Also, the 12 Strong’s cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek does a great job, providing some sleek camera work that adds that layer of cinematic nuances, which (of course) is something I look forward to in watching a movie. Lastly, musical score, which was composed by Lorne Balfe, is pretty good, with some great flourishes of dramatic music and some bombastic pieces when the film’s action is kicked into gear. It seems like Balfe is becoming quite the recognizable film composer out there.
There are some problems within 12 Strong that prevent the film from truly standing out amongst other war feature movies out there. The main negative criticism the movie faces (and can’t really overcome) is how predictable and formulaic the plays out to be. Now…I’m not saying that the 12 Strong isn’t a suspenseful or thrilling wartime movie that focuses on “the war over there” (i.e. Iraq) or that it isn’t a solid endeavor in “shedding light” on such a declassified mission during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That being said, the very nature of the movie can’t help itself from being predictable throughout much of the narrative being told, especially if you already know the declassified story of these soldiers.
Additionally, the movie’s pacing becomes a problem as the film is a little “long in the tooth” (sort of speak), especially when it has a runtime of 130 minutes (two hours and ten minutes), and could’ve been easily edited down (a good ten to twelve minutes) to still provide an effective cinematic tale.
In conjunction with that, the movie is slightly generic when it comes to following the film’s feature story as a war film. While the film’s “based on a true life” narrative is indeed palpable and commendable to those who were involved on the mission, Fuglsig’s film doesn’t really break any type of new ground in the genre of war movies. Yes, I have to admit that the ending battle sequence is pretty cool and the film does have the right amount of action needed for a project like this (in the way of cinematic entertainment), but there’s little sense of innovation or creativity that’s used in the movie from what’s already come before. Thus, there’s a strong sense of familiarity throughout, which is sort of a “double edge” sword motif (a sort of good positive and bad negative). To me, it wasn’t a bad of thing as some are making it out to be, but I would’ve liked to see a bit more originality or even something to be complete “wowed” over at some point in the movie. Sadly, the movie never does that. In truth, Fuglsig’s direction and execution of the movie is very much a “paint-by-numbers” sort of ordeal, following a clear-cut path that’s again something quite familiar (and generic) for its genre. Even the film’s script, which was adapted from Stanton’s material and penned by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, seems to be very much a “paint-by-numbers” endeavor throughout much of the film. Again, that’s not to say that the movie is enjoyable / entertaining, but I pretty much expected a lot of the scenes and scenarios to play out in the exact way they did. Additionally, the film’s script never delves deep enough into the sort of “hindsight” understanding into the “War in Afghanistan”. Yes, the movie points out that the mission that Mitchell’s team is on is very important, but never fully explains the overall gravitas and innerworkings of what it means and how it fits into the “grand scheme” of the larger story (i.e. the War in Afghanistan) and how it changed the playing field. I’m sure Stanton’s book cover that idea, but the 12 Strong movie never really does. Lastly, the movie has a hard time in trying juggle its plethora of side / supporting characters, but I’ll get to that below. Suffice to say, 12 Strong, while well-founded and solid, lacks a sort of seldom execution and pizzazz to fully discern itself from what’s already been done (and told) in past wartime movies.
The cast in 12 Strong has plenty of solid, familiar, and recognizable faces of actors that populate the film’s wide array of characters, who are mostly played by the soldiers within (or surrounding officials) Nelson’s team. Acting as the “big ticketed” star of the feature is actor Chris Hemsworth, who steps into the role of the movie’s main protagonist character Captain Mitchell Nelson. Mostly known for playing Thor in the MCU movies as well as starring in Rush, In the Heart of the Sea, and Black Hat, Hemsworth has proven himself to be a capable leading man in a movie and it currently shows that in 12 Strong, lending his screen presence whenever the story (and camera) are focused on him. Naturally, the story arc for the character of Mitchell (i.e. a young and eager leader who hasn’t seen much “battlefield” time) is a compelling one, which does ultimately work for the feature, utilizing Hemsworth natural charm and charisma to bring such a trial to the young man. Personally, I liked him in the role and seems like good fit. Plus, it interesting to see Hemsworth in a role other than playing the Thor (the Asgardian God of Thunder) from the Marvel superhero blockbusters of late. Behind Hemsworth’s Mitchell is the character of Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader / general of the Northern Alliance, who is played by actor Navid Neganhban. Known for his roles in Homeland, Brothers, and Legion, Neganhban equally does a great job as Dostum, riffing on the grizzled / stubborn leader who sees Mitchell as an unexperienced leader who has much to learn. The actual chemistry between Neganhban and Hemsworth (a sort of father / mentor one) is also great as well, with both committed to the respective parts in both intense and insightful moments (depending on the scene).
Of the many 595 soldiers under Mitchell’s command, the only two characters that standout are Chief Warrant Officer 5 Hal Spencer and Sergeant First Class Sam Diller, who are played by actors Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water and Boardwalk Empire) and Michael Pena (Ant-Man and the Wasp and The Martian). Of those two, Shannon gets the most screen-time of the secondary supporting characters, mostly due to his character being the most “seasoned / veteran” of the team (kind of like a father / mentor figure for Mitchell) and he (Shannon) does lend his “veteran” acting talents to the film’s proceedings. Pena also gets a fair amount of screen-time, but its mostly due to the fact of his screen-presence and not so much on his character build.
The rest of the cast, which mostly makes up the rest of the 595 company, including actor Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight and The Predator) as Sergeant First Class Ben Milo, actor Austin Stowell (Bridge of Spies and Whiplash) as Staff Sergeant Fred Falls, actor / stunt man coordinator Kenny Sheard (13 Hours and John Wick: Chapter 2) as Sergeant First Class Bill Bennett, actor Geoff Stults (Only the Brave and She’s Out of Your League) as team member Sean Coffers, actor Thad Luckinbill (Only the Brave and The Young and the Restless) as team member Vern Michaels, actor Kenneth Miller (Only the Brave and Waco) as team member Kenny Jackson, actor Ben O’Toole (Hacksaw Ridge and Detroit) as team member Scott Black, and actor Jack Kesy (Claws and The Strain) as team member Charles Jones are mostly in the background or have one or two moments in the “spotlight” of the feature. All their acting talents are fine and, while they do have a great rapport with each other (a sense of brotherly soldier camaraderie), most of them are short-changed and end up being stock-like characters for majority of the feature. However, it’s the sort of “nature of the game” when focusing on a large team or group in a movie. So, I kind of expected this.
Other noteworthy side / supporting characters in the movie are actors William Fitchner (Armageddon and Crash) and Robb Riggle (21 Jump Street and Midnight Sun) as Colonel John Mulholland (5th Special Forces Group Commander) and Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers (Commander of the 3rd Battalion in the 5th Special Forces Group) respectfully. Both lend their talents in these relatively small (but effective) roles in the movie. Lastly, actress Elsa Pataky (Tidelands and Fast Five) plays the role of Mitchell’s wife Jean Nelson. While Pataky’s acting talents are naturally good and is kind of neat / cool to see her in a movie with her real-life husband (i.e. Hemsworth) as husband and wife, the role of Jean doesn’t really amount to much beyond simply bookending the movie as the “concerned wife”. From the film’s trailer, I was expecting a bit more from her character with some type of minor subplot of her worrying over her husband safety and whatnot, but (to be honest) she’s barely in it, which kind of feels like a missed opportunity.
The once declassified story of the U.S. Special Forces unit that conducted a mission days after the 9/11 attacks is finally brought to light in the movie 12 Strong. Director Nicolai Fuglsig directorial debut film tells the story of the 595 Special Forces team and their decisive mission they must undergo, with the movie cutting a clear path in its story and in the bravery and valor that they men displayed. While the film’s pacing and narrative substance does lack in certain areas (as well as having slightly generic wartime tone and plot beats), the movie still does succeed in enjoyable piece of theatrical entertainment, thanks to some of the staged action sequences, the film’s leading actors (Hemsworth and Neganhban) as well as some recognizable faces, and by honoring the “real life” soldiers who participated during this mission in the aftermath of 9/11 with a generally favorable feature film. To me, I liked it. Yes, there were some problems with the movie and it wasn’t the “be-all, end-all” military action drama movie out there, but it was still pretty entertaining. Plus, given the fact that this was Fuglsig really first big Hollywood motion picture (as a director), it’s not half-bad. To be truthful, it’s better than most endeavors from a first-time director in handling such a large film project like this. And to that, I commend Fuglsig for his efforts. Thus, I would say that I would “recommend” this movie, especially those who like the action / war films out there as well as being a very strong / favorable “rent it” for those more causal moviegoers. In the end, while it’s not the quintessential military war time film or the most poignant feature drama on the 9/11 attacks, 12 Strong is steadfast (yet slightly generic) military bio pic that’s worth checking out.
3.8 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)
Released On: January 19th, 2018
Reviewed On: September 11th, 2018
12 Strong is 130 minutes long and is rated R for war violence and language throughout