Everybody who lived through the events of September 11, 2001 can remember the welter of emotions they experienced in the days and weeks that followed. For me, it was disbelief, fear, anger, and, above all, an overwhelming desire to fight back. To strike out at the people who struck us. 12 Strong tells the story of the first 12 Americans to do exactly that.
In early October, 2001, U.S. Special Forces Command sent twelve green berets to Afghanistan. These men formed ODA 595 and were given the name “Task Force Dagger”. An ODA is an “Operational Detachment Alpha”, commonly known as (largely thanks to a certain ‘80’s tv show) an A-Team. Their mission was to gain the confidence of General Dostum, one of the Afghan warlords fighting against the Taliban. The team sought to aid his forces in that fight, primarily by calling in airstrikes on targets of opportunity.
The eventual goal was to capture the town of Mazar-i-Sherif, a major Taliban stronghold. Task Force Dagger fought a series of pitched battles against the Taliban on their way from their base of operations to the city, which was 50 kilometers away. A battle of wills between General Dostum (Navid Negahban) and Team Leader Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) ensues. The general wants to use the Americans to take vengeance against the Taliban leader who killed his family. Captain Nelson just wants to get to Mazar-i-Sharif and complete his mission before winter sets in and makes that task impossible. The constantly-shifting dynamic between these two characters provides drama to compliment the action in the film.
The team accompanying Captain Nelson is played by a variety of well-known supporting actors who give solid, but unmemorable performances. One of 12 Strong’s biggest downfalls is the lack of character development. Michael Pena is clearly the joker of the group, and Michael Shannon is the grizzled old advice-dispenser. Aside from that, there’s absolutely nothing else. I wanted to learn more about these guys and their motivations besides “finish the mission”.
One of my favorite aspects of this film is its accurate portrayal of ODAs and the Green Berets. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not simply super soldiers that roam the battlefield as terrifying slayers of all things living. Their stated mission is to operate with indigenous forces behind enemy lines, primarily as combat advisors. This is the first movie to portray the Green Berets in that role.
The operators making up these teams have a confidence that would make fighter pilots look humble. And the actors depicting these men portray that swagger with ease. Absolutely nothing fazes these guys. Riding horses into battle against tanks? “Sure, why not? I’ve got nothing else planned today.” To the uninitiated, it may come across as over-the-top bravado. But it’s simply very much the way these soldiers are. It brought a realism and authenticity to the film that I greatly enjoyed.
12 Strong contains some of the best battlefield choreography I have seen in a film. Director Nicolai Fuglsig puts you right in the middle of the chaos. The idea of riding horses into battle against tanks may sound absurd, but bear in mind that these events actually happened. The pure insanity of that carries through the screen and put me on the edge of my seat. You just know the team is going to be wiped out in seconds. The laws of combat physics dictate they should be. Yet it never happens. Not since Saving Private Ryan has a movie conveyed the idea that surviving combat involves luck as much as skill.
As good as most aspects of this film are, there are certainly things 12 Strong could have done better. Outside of the lack of character development, there are also cut scenes that completely stall the pace of the film. The obligatory scene of a Taliban leader torturing and killing a school teacher rears its ugly head as well. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last sixteen years, you probably don’t need a reminder about how evil the Taliban are.
We also get occasional scenes of a commanding officer in Kazakhstan second guessing his decision to allow Captain Nelson to lead the team. Whether those incidents happened or not, they are unnecessary to the telling of this story. There is more than enough drama to be had with our team, and the time would have been better served developing those sub-plots, which I think the audience would’ve found more interesting.
Overall, I am a fan of this film. I think anyone who lived through the events of 9/11 and felt the same things I did, will be as well. I was moved by the incredible dedication and drive exhibited by these men in the face of ridiculously daunting odds. They completed a mission that was absolutely essential to the removal of the Taliban as an effective fighting force in Afghanistan. Regardless of what your current opinion of world events may be, these men deserved to have their story told. 12 Strong does justice to the spirit and valor that Task Force Dagger brought to their mission.
“The Green Beret is a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.” President John F. Kennedy April 11, 1962
If you’re a fan of war films like myself, don’t miss the Hollywood Outsider’s roundtable discussion about the film Dunkirk.