“12 Strong” is one of those January movies that wants people to think that it’s in awards contention even though it isn’t. We’re at the point in the year when movies that opened in limited release in December are starting to go wide because of awards season. “The Post” from last week followed that template; it’s technically a 2017 movie and it wants recognition as one of the best films of 2017, but it’s content to do most of its business in 2018. “12 Strong” is a war movie that can pass itself off as awards bait, so it wants audiences to think that maybe its January release is because it’s a terrific 2017 movie rather than the mediocre 2018 movie that it is. I’m not saying that the film’s advertising has made any false claims or actively been deceitful, all I’m saying is that the film doesn’t mind being mistaken for something better.
The film follows the first group of American soldiers to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan following 9/11. It’s a 12-man unit, but there’s really only emphasis on four of them. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is the leader, an inexperienced operative who gets the mission because he understands that someone more experienced is going to be lost in such uncharted territory. Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) is a veteran who turns down the chance to retire to serve on the mission. Sam Diller (Michael Peña) is one of the more likeable members of the team, a good-humored family man played by Peña with his usual charm. Ben Milo (Travante Rhodes) has a subplot where he bonds with a child assigned to protect him. Other U.S. military figures include Col. John Mulholland (William Fichtner), there to provide Nelson with inspiration, and Lt. Col. Max Bowers, played by soldier-turned-actor Rob Riggle, who actually served under Bowers.
Those are the faces you’ll recognize, anyway. The truth is that the most interesting character in this movie is one who’s barely been emphasized in the film’s advertising. Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) is a resource-rich local warlord that Nelson needs to befriend if he wants to complete the mission. Dostum is the kind of guy who won’t let you know he speaks English unless he decides you’re worthy of knowing that he speaks English. As expected, he’s very hesitant to work with Americans, but fortunately he’s determined to wipe out the Taliban at all costs. He’s got a grudge against the local Taliban leader and taunts him personally a few times. It’s very important to Dostum that he be the one to sack the city at the heart of the mission, and he’s conflicted when it looks like the mission might be a success without the spoils going to him.
Dostum is able to provide Nelson and his men with transportation in the form of horses, which they don’t know how to ride. There’s been a lot of emphasis on the horses in the film’s advertising, and in fact its original title was “Horse Soldiers.” I was expecting some cowboy antics in the action sequences, but the horses are just used to get from Point A to Point B, a symbol of how the Americans are out of their element in Afghanistan.
“12 Strong” is a completely average based-on-a-true-story war movie. The movie does a great job of making its subjects look like heroes and a lousy job of making them look like interesting people. Even great actors like Shannon and Peña struggle to make their characters halfway memorable, to say nothing of the ones played by lesser-known actors. Hemsworth as the lead may have an all-American look, but his Australian accent pokes through enough for him to lack an all-American voice. The action is perfectly competent, and of course you’ll be rooting for the real-life heroes every step of the way, but there’s nothing outstanding about this movie that would say, win it a major award.
“12 Strong” is rated R for war violence and language throughout. Its running time is 130 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.