12 Strong Is an Underwhelming Tribute to the ‘Horse Soldiers’ of the Afghan War

Photo: David James/Warner Bros.

The newest ode to the American warrior is 12 Strong (subtitle: The Unclassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers), which follows a dozen Special Forces soldiers who are surreptitiously choppered into northern Afghanistan less than two months after 9/11. Their mission was incredibly perilous, but they weren’t on the ground to fight. Their job was to embed themselves with warlords in the Northern Alliance; ride on small-ish, mountain-ready horses through the yawning passes; and radio coordinates of Taliban strongholds to U.S. planes that had previously been bombing blind. Securing the north — and the key city of Mazar-i-Sharif — would set up the U.S. and its allies for a full-scale invasion of Kabul. Until then, those 12 Americans were alone in a land they didn’t know amid tribes whose actions they couldn’t predict and with tens of thousands of nearby Taliban fighters itching to carve them up, slowly.

The movie, based on the terrific book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, is only so-so, but it moves at a fair clip and fills in a lot of details about the early successes of the Afghanistan War. It’s also rich in manly nods, of the sort that signal, “Well done, brother.” Those are always very gratifying. Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, who watches the Twin Towers fall on TV and abandons his stunned family (his wife refuses sex so he’ll come back) to rejoin the Special Forces team he’s only recently quit. When Nelson’s superior declines to restore him to leadership, Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon, who remains on pace to act in more movies than anyone ever while also doing plays) makes a fierce case on behalf of his old comrade: “You break this team up, you’re cutting the head off your most venomous snake!”

Snake parts firmly reassembled, Nelson, Spencer, and their men (played by Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, and exactly eight others) fly to Uzbekistan, 97 miles from the Afghan border and the bailiwick of Colonel Mulholland, played by William Fichtner at his most prickly. Meeting Fichtner’s live-wire stare is a test for any man and Hemsworth holds his mud. Mulholland says, “Nineteen men made war against the U.S. on 9/11. You 12 will be the first ones to fight back.” In no time the team is Chinooking to Afghanistan (“grave of empires”) at a hypoxia-inducing 14,000 feet to greet the next eccentric character actor, Navid Negahban, as Northern Alliance warlord General Dostun. Negahban — who played Abu Nazir on Homeland and, according to IMDb, counts both Barack Obama and Shimon Peres as big fans — declaims most of his lines from atop his horse, mocking his new American friends while simultaneously showing them off to his suitably awed countrymen. The best part is when Dostun phones his mortal enemy, Taliban commander Khaled (Fahim Fazli), and says, “The Americans are here. Fuck you.” Khaled had earlier put a bullet in the head of a female teacher for daring to teach spelling and arithmetic to little girls, and the movie periodically cuts to him glowering from under his black beard.

Nelson sets a goal of three weeks to bomb the bejeezus out of the Taliban and move on Mazar-i-Sharif, and the film is helpful enough to keep track of the time for us: “Days in Country: 5,” etc. There’s a good mix of ultra-precise tech jargon and ultra-foggy anxiety (“Somethin’ ain’t right here,” “Heads on swivel!”), as well as weird stuff unique to this war, like the sardonic CIA operative with the shoulder bag of cash who drops a load and then trudges off into the desert in search of the next bribable tribesmen. Another thing you don’t see too often: Shannon’s Spencer slips a disk while riding one of those low-to-the-ground horses over the hard terrain and spends the climax calling in coordinates flat on his back.

Three of the problems with 12 Strong are location, location, and location, and not just because the film was shot in New Mexico and California. The director, Nicolai Fuglsig, has no feel for the mythic dread that the harsh, sublime, inhumanly scaled landscape is said to invoke in those who weren’t born to it. He’s lousy at giving us our bearings from scene to scene, and his battle scenes are nearly impossible to follow. This is another movie in which Afghans (Taliban and Northern Alliance alike) run eagerly into bullets while Americans dodge fusillade after fusillade.

But it’s the swerves into formula that cut the deepest. The Horse Soldiers’ story is unconventional, and the film — produced by uber-slickster Jerry Bruckheimer — has been shaped along conventional war-movie lines. Rhodes’s Sgt. First Class Ben Milo is dogged by an Afghan boy who first makes him nervous and then touches his heart. The demon Taliban commander has an idiotically melodramatic comeuppance that’s worthy of a Grade-Z Stallone movie. The worst part is when Nelson — who has never seen combat — must prove to General Dostun that he can kill with his heart and not his head and so be a warrior instead of a mere soldier. So we wait for the scene in which Nelson blows away some anonymous black-clad Taliban baddie and gets the manly nod from his barbaric mentor. Now he is a real man!

What stinks about the dopey, red-meat conceit is that this is the wrong context. Stanton in his book makes the case that the Horse Soldiers’ triumph was about more than saving your buddies and blowing away bad guys. He says, “It was a template for the way the present war — and future ones — should be fought. Instead of large-scale occupations, we should rely on small units of Special Forces who have proved it’s infinitely more effective to work with a country’s soldiers and citizens at eye level.”

It’s too bad the movie didn’t find room for a major character in Stanton’s account: John Walker Lindh, the scion of a well-off Northern California family who fought with the Taliban before his ignominious capture. But it’s the final sin of omission that’s unforgivable. The closing crawl sticks to celebratory happy talk. Those who’ve read Horse Soldiers know that several of the heroic Americans who survived the necessary, carefully orchestrated invasion of Afghanistan would die in the unnecessary, criminally bungled occupation of Iraq, courtesy such men as Donald Rumsfeld — presented in 12 Strong in a favorable context. A true memorial to the Horse Soldiers would show not just their triumph, but the larger tragedy of successful templates arrogantly discarded and all those lessons unlearned.

12 Strong: An Underwhelming Tribute to the ‘Horse Soldiers’