I recently watched 12 Strong (2018), Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest offering and a fictionalized account of the opening salvo against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The movie was exciting enough, with a fair share of action and intense battle scenes, but it just wasn’t great. After writing my review (to be posted later this month), I started to think about what elements make a great war film.
Nearly every great war film has one thing in common (aside from epic music): they at least attempt to show both sides of the story. Think about Battle of the Bulge (1965), Patton (1970), Braveheart (1995), We Were Soldiers (2002), Gettysburg (1993), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Each of these films involve a conflict between two sides and show the motivations of both sides, to varying degrees. The Japanese portion of Tora! Tora! Tora! (about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was actually made by Japanese filmmakers.
Establishing an antagonist with clear, realistic motivations is key to creating a compelling story in a “man against man” conflict. This is especially true in war. In Braveheart, we see both William Wallace and King Edward I as they attempt to defeat each other. No one is confused about whether Edward I is the bad guy. We see him do bad guy things, like throw his son’s lover out a window. But he’s given plenty of screen time to develop his personality and explain his motives.
In We Were Soldiers, the story switches between the Vietnamese and American points of view. North Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An was portrayed as a capable and worthwhile opponent. Battle of the Bulge, Patton, A Bridge too Far (1977), and even Enemy at the Gates (2001) all portray German officers as equally courageous, brilliant, and daring as the heroes.
In 12 Strong, the antagonist is Mullah Razzan, leader of the Taliban forces, a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. That’s all we ever learn about him. What’s his motivation? Why is he fighting? Why does he think the Taliban can win? No one seems to care, and so neither does the audience. Razzan and the hundreds of faceless Taliban fighters are just paper soldiers to be blown up.
You could argue perhaps the Taliban are too dastardly to be given a more humanized role. But were the Nazis less dastardly? Battle of the Bulge was released 20 years after the end of World War 2. Everyone knew about Nazi atrocities, and Allied propaganda had done a good job of dehumanizing them, yet Col. Hessler is portrayed as a competent and worthy opponent. His background and motivations are clearly established.
There’s something to be said for showing both points of view from a historical perspective as well. These were real people who engaged in a real conflict. Film gives us a unique opportunity to learn more about why men of both sides fought and died, how they perceived the conflict, and what was at stake. That’s what separates a historically-based drama from an action movie where a musclebound hero lays waste to a horde of faceless minions.
Unfortunately, 12 Strong missed an opportunity to show a more accurate, compelling, and nuanced view of early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.