Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Acts of outstanding bravery by American soldiers going above and beyond their call of duty during wartime are certainly commendable. Hollywood studios eat it up too, considering around this time every year, they bless us with an explosive, rousing war movie. Though I’m not exactly sure what this release schedule says about our current zeitgeist (maybe we’re just trying to begin the year on an inspirational note), we’ve seen this demonstrated before with films like ACT OF VALOR, LONE SURVIVOR, AMERICAN SNIPER and 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI. Director Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 STRONG tells a different but equally gripping, compelling and heartrending tale of wartime woes, impossibilities, unlikely friendships and triumphs of the human spirit.
Feeling compelled to once again fight for his country, following the attacks of 9/11, Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) assembles a squad of elite Special Forces soldiers to follow him on a seemingly impossible mission into the war-torn country of Afghanistan. They include Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), Sam Diller (Michael Pena), Sean Coffers (Geoff Stults), Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), and seven other guys, who get dealt short shrift in character department. His team is selected to be the first group of soldiers to launch offensive strikes against the Taliban. Leaving their families behind, these brave men are dropped into a volatile foreign land, where their mission is to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Mazar-I-Sharif. To do so, they must join forces with the local Afghan militia, led by Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban).
The screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig takes great craft and care in dramatizing Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book, titled HORSE SOLDIERS. The central relationship dynamic between Dostum and Nelson bears a striking (and welcomed) resemblance to the friendship between T.E. Lawrence and Sherif Ali in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA – a.k.a. the gold standard of cinema itself. This is how the filmmakers wisely skirt any jingoism or xenophobia. Dostum is just as committed to wiping out Taliban villain Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar) for personal reasons as Nelson is for political ones. Both characters also learn from each other as leaders and friends. Dostum’s “heart of a leader” lecture is a noteworthy sea change for Nelson’s character. There’s also a sweet bond that forms between Milo and Najeeb (Arshia Mandavi), a teen boy shadowing him. It’s made very clear that Nelson and his team aren’t there to be “white saviors” or exploit the Afghan people. The battlefield is the greatest equalizer for these warriors on both sides. There’s a genuine heartbeat pumping with compassion and empathy behind the drive of these men.
The trouble is, many of the characters are one-dimensional. So when they are put into peril, it makes it difficult to connect with any earned emotions. Their character traits are mostly dictated by how their wives react to them going off to war. And the guys with no wives, well, we barely knew ya! They all sorta become lost in the jumble of the grit and grime of the battlefield. You root for their success as a unit, sure, but thinking of them as fleshed out individuals could’ve helped hammer things home a bit more emotionally. Could this indicate that they’re best seen as a team? It speeds through their male bonding time too, though this winds up being a blessing as what’s there is a bunch of cringe-worthy dialogue. Plus, it’s disheartening to hear one of the characters be forced to state aloud what was already shown about choosing duty over family.
Aesthetically, Fuglsig – who cut his chops crafting striking, sumptuous commercial work – surprisingly doesn’t do much to make each of his epic, explosive battle sequences stand out visually from one another. It’s a bit of a disservice that these three harrowing set pieces aren’t uniquely textured to fit into the overall visual language of the picture. It all blends together in a more workmanlike approach to the photography, choreography and editing. Maybe it was a function of a pressing schedule, or budget, but it’s left lacking the visual artistry and innovation that the director has previously demonstrated in spades.
Overall, 12 STRONG is a heartfelt and respectful tribute to heroes whose sacrifice, commitment and courage shouldn’t go unnoticed. What these warriors did was truly incredible. It’s too bad that this isn’t as incredible cinematically.
12 STRONG opens on January 19.