12 Strong: Exciting but Embellished Portrayal of Operation Enduring Freedom’s Opening Salvo

Twelve special operations soldiers team up with the Northern Alliance to strike back against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in 12 Strong (2018). Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, and directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, 12 Strong is based on the book Horse Soldiers (2009) by Doug Stanton. Unfortunately, epic battle scenes and a compelling real-life story aren’t enough to rescue this film from its lackluster execution and direction.

Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is moving to a staff job when terrorists destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. With the help of Chief Warrant Officer 5 Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), he convinces Lt. Colonel Max Bowers (Rob Riggle), Commander of 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, to allow him to rejoin his team and deploy with Task Force Dagger against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

In Uzbekistan, Captain Nelson convinces Colonel John Mulholland (William Fichtner) to allow his team to go in first by displaying confidence and a knowledge of Afghan history, despite never having served in combat. Prominent members of his team include SFC Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and SFC Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes). Together, they must earn the trust of an unpredictable Afghan warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), and help him defeat his Taliban rivals around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif using U.S. air power.

Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar), leader of the Taliban forces, is a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. After several confrontations and missteps, Captain Nelson wins Dostum’s trust and together they overwhelm the Taliban in the “Tiangi Gap” and free Mazar-i-Sharif, mostly on horseback.

This is Danish photojournalist and director Nicolai Fuglsig’s sophomore effort, his first being a sci fi film he wrote, produced, and directed called Exfil (2017). A more experienced director probably could have crafted this story into something a bit more substantive. It falls victim to the same arcade-style action we’ve come to expect, and unnecessarily embellishes the truth to make events seem more incredible.

I was disappointed to learn the events of the climactic battle are almost entirely made up. Real-life Capt. Mark Nutsch (Mitch Nelson in the film) told the Tampa Bay Times, “This is a fictional portrayal — don’t lose sight of that.” U.S. Green Berets didn’t charge into the fight–they directed airstrikes from overwatches behind the frontlines.

In real life, it took roughly nine hours for help to arrive, and this is explicitly stated several times in 12 Strong. However, when Hal Spencer is severely wounded in a suicide-grenade attack, a helicopter arrives within minutes after the battle to evacuate him to safety. That’s because the incident is included for dramatic effect, and none of the team members were actually wounded.

The climactic charge of the horse soldiers against two BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launchers also never happened. While the Taliban did have BM-21s at the Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif, they were destroyed by U.S. airstrikes. Still, seeing the rockets fire on screen was spectacular and an awesome visual effect.

Overall, audiences generally liked this film, while critics gave it a lukewarm reception (72% versus 54% on Rotten Tomatoes). It delivers on the action and drama, and even attempts a nuanced portrayal of U.S.–Afghan relations, but something misfired along the way. 12 Strong ultimately comes across as formulaic and uninspiring, which is a shame because no Americans come closer to being real life heroes than these soldiers. They deserve a little better than a generic action film.

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