Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"12 Strong": review

On September 11, 2001, America suffered a catastrophic loss of life as almost 3000 citizens were killed in a multipronged attack by the forces of Al Qaeda, directed by Osama bin Laden. One of the US's earliest responses was to send US Army Special Forces into Afghanistan to help local warlords retake towns and villages from Al Qaeda, and to begin to push back against both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Controversially known as "the graveyard of empires," Afghanistan had gone from being a Russian problem to being an American one. Among the first Special Forces to go in were the men of Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA-595)—specifically, twelve men led by Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth). Their mission was to meet up with local Afghan general Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban, who had a role in TV's "24") and cooperate with the general in a campaign that would push through several villages on the way to a Taliban stronghold in Mazar-i-Sharif. While the movie features plenty of battle scenes, much of the story's focus is on Nelson and Dostum: Dostum is an older, grizzled commander who hates the Taliban and is fiercely loyal to his country; he has trouble respecting the young, fresh-faced Nelson, who has the trust and loyalty of his Special Forces team but has never seen combat. At one point, Dostum, in looking over Nelson's team, notes that all of Nelson's men have "killer's eyes" except for Nelson himself.

This movie, recently out on home video, humorously features an "enthusiasm gap" (a term first mentioned on this blog here): the critics hated the film, but regular audiences loved it. I can see why: the film is far too pro-American and un-cynical for left-leaning critical tastes: critics probably saw the film as one-dimensional and jingoistic. Even though there are scenes in which the Afghans denigrate American naiveté, this is probably not enough to satisfy the critics' need to see America pilloried for its many sins abroad. The enthusiasm gap notwithstanding, what drives the film is the arc of the relationship between Nelson and Dostum, who eventually forge a bond of mutual respect, especially once Nelson makes his bones and becomes a true combat veteran—not just a soldier, but a warrior in full.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, which didn't get overly bloody, but did manage to generate a certain level of suspense. The bad guys in this movie, especially Numan Acar as Mullah Razzan, tended to be held at a distance from the viewer and were generally flat characters. The other actors portraying Special Forces soldiers, including Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, and Trevante Rhodes, do the best they can with the meager characterization they get. This isn't the sort of movie that wins Oscars, BAFTAs, or other plaudits, but Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig is out to create a sort of tribute, in the spirit and style of Peter Berg and his films, for a moment in American military history when a few brave men came together and did some good. Not lasting good, perhaps, but still something. The film ends on an interesting footnote: a title card tells us that General Dostum (who is Uzbek, and who looks absolutely nothing like the actor who portrays him) eventually became vice president of Afghanistan, and that Mitch Nelson remains a close friend.

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