Shortly after the Twin Towers fell in 2001, a crack team of just 12 Green Berets drove deep into Afghanistan in hopes of dealing a retributive blow to Taliban forces.
Wildly outnumbered, and armed with only guns, horses and radios, these men teamed with local warriors to inflict heavy casualties on several thousand terrorist troops -- achieving a victory that is almost unprecedented in modern warfare.
Yet because their mission was heavily classified, the group known as ODA 595 received no public recognition for their death-defying heroism.
“12 Strong” should go a long way toward redressing that omission.
The film is too long and not especially well scripted; but it succeeds due to strong performances, superbly choreographed battle scenes and a stirring portrait of courage and selflessness in the face of overwhelming odds.
“Thor’s” charismatic Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, who proved a capable and commanding leader despite never having been in combat before. Hemsworth is ably supported by Michael Pena and Michael Shannon -- among many others playing U.S. soldiers -- and especially by Navid Negahban as local General Abdul Rashid Nostum, whom Nelson was commissioned to work with.
A major problem for the 595 was that Nostum’s militia was one of three arrayed against the Taliban; but this trio hated each other so much that their refusal to work together threatened to spill over into outright aggression and infighting.
Negahban, the Iranian actor perhaps best known for playing Abu Nazir on TV’s “Homeland,” brings an extraordinary blend of mystery, grace, wisdom and conviction to the local warlord; with the help of sharp dialog in his scenes, he represents the only part of this film that offers any measure of nuance and subtlety.
Much of the balance features run-of-the-mill army camaraderie and an uneven pace, especially in the concluding fight, which goes on too long, violating Hitchcock’s rule that film climaxes ought to be brief. (For the record, this is a dictum which bears reexamination by many modern movie-makers.)
Up till then, the battle scenes are fierce, scary and realistic. First-time feature director Nicolai Fuglsig got his start snapping war photos in Kosovo, and this gritty expertise proves invaluable; his action scenes feature just the right blend of chaos and clarity. At the same time, he doesn’t lean heavily on explicit gore, which has gone way over the top in many recent war films.
Assisted by a number of military advisers (and no doubt by exec producer Doug Stanton, who wrote the nonfiction book on which this film is based), Fuglsig brews up admirable realism that is surprisingly undiminished by his unusual choice for location shooting -- New Mexico, of all places.
“12 Strong” at times feels a little too rah-rah and gung-ho; but this is easy to overlook in view of its post-9/11 time period -- and the fact that it simply wants to give these heroes the recognition they deserve.
Ain’t it about time.
directed by Nicolai Fuglsig
Run time: 130 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated R for war violence and language throughout