“12 Strong” tells the story of Task Force Dagger, a team of Army Green Berets who were among the first soldiers sent into Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. There, they worked with the Northern Alliance to fight against the Taliban and, in the process, secured one of America’s first victories in the Middle-East. At first glance, it’s easy to criticize the movie for its surface level commentary on the War in Afghanistan. “12 Strong” doesn’t have much to say on its subject, and it chooses to recount its true story without embellishment or serious contemplation of the future.
On the one hand, that’s OK. Stories of brave deeds are always welcome, provided they are well-told stories. Unfortunately, this is where the film stumbles. “12 Strong” is perfectly watchable for what it is, but it lacks the added heft that would have made it memorable, and the script by and large relies on well-worn tropes in the place of character development. There are no less than two scenes in which a soldier befriends a small native boy who is later killed to provide him with motivation to fight the good fight. It would be lazy if it were just done the one time, but twice in the same movie is just asinine.
This is doubly disappointing given the quality of the performers assembled. Chris Hemsworth (“Thor: Ragnarok”) leads with a supporting cast that includes Michael Shannon (“The Shape of Water”), Michael Peña (“CHiPS”) and Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”). All actors acquit themselves well, but they are given little to do outside of the macho banter that makes up most of the dialogue in films like these. This isn’t to denounce joking between characters, but when used as a substitute for actual development, it can only lead to two-dimensional roles.
The one exception, and the undeniable best part of the movie, is Navid Negahban (“American Assassin”) as General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who would go on to become Vice President of Afghanistan. The scenes with Dostum are the most interesting “12 Strong” has to offer, and it all comes down to his characterization in the script. He’s complex and impulsive, yet brave. He has a backstory and refreshing relationship with Hemsworth’s Mitch Nelson, as he serves as a mentor to the Captain in his first combat mission. Best of all, his comments on the beginning of the war are the closest “12 Strong” comes to having a cogent point beyond the black-and-white of America’s righteousness in Afghanistan. When he tells Mitch that the longer America stays in Afghanistan, the greater the chance that the two will one day be fighting each other, it’s a legitimately thought-provoking conversation about America’s role in the Middle East, even if it’s a scene the rest of the film arguably doesn’t do enough to deserve.
On a technical level, “12 Strong” is generally serviceable, though much of the large-scale action lacks the strong sense of geography that war movies desperately need. Battle scenes rely on the viewer being able to tell where they are in relation to the characters, allowing for more tension and an easier to follow story. Without it, these sequences become little more than intercut shots of people shooting machine guns. “12 Strong” isn’t as dire in this area as, say, Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper” — the climax of which, despite taking place on one rooftop, is completely incomprehensible — but ultimately, its lackluster set pieces function as a sort of stand-in for the movie as a whole. It’s not bad, and occasionally it approaches remarkable, but a more seasoned director likely could have made more sense of the carnage.