Set during the tense and uncertain autumn of 2001, “12 Strong” kicks off with five of the least trustworthy words in the Hollywood lexicon — “based on a true story” — and a blast of adrenaline-pumping music that seems to cast its honesty further into doubt. Does the truth really need this much amping up for effect?
Perhaps sensing that its authenticity might be in doubt, the movie is quick to deliver a cold, hard slap of reality. We watch the World Trade Center towers crumble on a TV in the home of Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), who immediately springs into action along with the 11 other U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who will soon be under his command.
“We’ll be in this fight, boys, you mark my words,” Nelson says, and the script, written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig with the unerring logic of hindsight, proves him right. After bidding a teary farewell to their families, these 12 Green Berets will find themselves in the mountain passes of northern Afghanistan, battling Al Qaeda-linked Taliban forces on a mission of the utmost importance and secrecy.
Directed with personality-free proficiency by the Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig, and produced by the computer-generated explosion factory commonly known as Jerry Bruckheimer Films, “12 Strong” recounts an extraordinary military mission in predictably, even reassuringly, ordinary terms. An awful lot of tedious wisecrackery and macho bluster has been marshaled in service of a story of daunting logistical sweep and geopolitical complexity. Even the title is a small masterpiece of bland, all-purpose American jingoism, selected for ideal placement in alphabetized streaming queues.
The circumstances of Task Force Dagger, as laid out in Doug Stanton’s 2009 nonfiction book, “Horse Soldiers,” remain fascinating in terms of the unique challenges they posed to the American troops on the ground. And Fuglsig’s collaborators, who include cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek, editor Lisa Lassek and a skilled battalion of stunt workers and visual-effects artists, have dramatized those challenges with appreciable coherence, working against a reasonably convincing simulacrum of Afghanistan (played, as it invariably is, by New Mexico).
Although vastly outnumbered by an enemy that has no fear of death, Nelson and his men do have superior intelligence and B-52 firepower at their disposal. In order to deploy this high-tech weaponry effectively and find their way to the strategically positioned city of Mazar-i-Sharif, they will have to work closely with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), a key leader in Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
The soldiers will also have to ride horses, the only available mode of transport through the country’s treacherous terrain. Nelson, who grew up on a ranch, rises effortlessly to the challenge; the other men don’t fare as well. But despite the saddle sores and other inconveniences of equestrian warfare, the image of these men on horseback is a strikingly cinematic one, and it underscores “12 Strong’s” status, for better or worse, as a modern-day cavalry western. If the filmmakers’ fidelity to the details winds up further burnishing the image of the American war hero, they can hardly be faulted for it.
What they can be faulted for is the way they lapse into the clichés and conventions of the Hollywood combat picture — not for the sake of breathing fresh life and vigor into them, the way filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow and Clint Eastwood have managed in their post-9/11 war movies, but simply because they seem incapable of imagining this story in more interesting or thoughtful terms.
The Nelson we see may be based on a real-life figure, but as played by Hemsworth he is basically Thor with a rifle and a Kentucky accent. That’s not entirely a bad thing; Hemsworth’s natural charm and charisma serve him well, and the character’s robust heroics at least give him something to play. By contrast, the excellent actors cast as the other soldiers, who include Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) and a gratifyingly tamped-down Michael Shannon, have virtually nothing to do besides act tough and fill every scene with as much strained banter as possible.
Dostum, a real-life fighter and survivor of many conflicts and regimes who would one day be elected vice president of Afghanistan, emerges almost by default as the movie’s most compelling character — a Mephistophelian figure whom Negahban embodies with a wry mix of pragmatism and philosophizing. “This is Afghanistan, the graveyard of many empires,” he says toward the end, in a rather late attempt to invest this smoky, blood-spattered spectacle with some introspection and gravity.
That attempt would be more convincing if “12 Strong” had any interest in comprehending the plight of this war-torn nation from any perspective but that of a grieving, vengeful America. The tragedies that have stricken Afghanistan’s embattled citizens for generations have been conveniently distilled into the role of a young village boy who tags along with the Green Berets and who will be physically endangered, you immediately suspect, at the most dramatically opportune moment.
A war movie doesn’t have to represent all sides of a geopolitical conflict to be compelling or fair-minded. Even Peter Berg, hardly the subtlest of action directors, managed to suggest something of America’s ethical quandary amid the crossfire of “Lone Survivor,” his narrowly focused but devastating 2013 account of a U.S. military defeat in Afghanistan.
What makes “12 Strong” objectionable — and what will also make it appealing to some — is its attempt to induce a kind of amnesia in the audience, to ask that we forget about the subsequent moral and strategic failures of America’s “war on terror” or the limits of military retaliation when it comes to the pursuit of justice.
One of the few instances in which the movie acknowledges those limits involves a news clip of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, triumphantly extolling the achievements of Task Force Dagger and unwittingly setting the stage for years of bloodshed, toil and uncertainty to come. Our leaders then and now could do better, and so could our movies.
Rating: R, for war violence and language throughout
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release