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12 Strong is the story of soldiers who rode on horses against tanks in the earliest days of the War on Terror. It’s one of those stories that sounds far too unrealistic in a Hollywood script but here it was, bright as any day that could be legally declassified, in our very own reality. After the September 11 attacks that shook the global landscape as we knew it. A war unlike any other would swiftly follow and its devastating effects are still being, a team of a dozen CIA and Green Berets were shipped off to Afghanistan to unite with General Abdul Rashid Dostum to fight against the Taliban.
American action cinema has a problematic cinematic shorthand with its current crop of war movies and espionage thrillers. Mysterious, terrorizing boogeymen from the Middle East are consistently lined up for fodder for super powered strongmen, the likes of which are no match for the Jack Bauer’s of the medium. Hey, I’m not one to judge. I too indulge in 24‘s low budget action thrills. But it’s an odd feeling that encroached during the viewing of 12 Strong. After receiving backlash for its treatment of Middle Eastern characters (more often caricatures than fully rounded people), 24 wrote in an episode where two Middle Eastern brothers who owned a gunshop assisted Bauer as he and a friend attempted to survive an attack by mercenaries. It’s not that the idea is bad, it’s that the execution is a little hokey and stilled didn’t address the moral complexities that go into radicalization of terrorism, foreign and/or domestic. 12 Strong is based on actual events, and I found myself thinking of a Fox primetime action series.
The War on Terror is and was a disaster. No exit strategy, uprooting communities and practically defecating on several countries and their populaces. The effects of this military endeavor are still being felt today. So when 12 Strong insists on telling a story about American Bravery and hammering away the saccharine nature of a Jerry Bruckheimer production, it feels disingenuous. It is hardly the subject matter that would fit into a gun-ho feel good story about American might and the men who represent it. While it may have been less exciting in a pitch meeting, there’s a compelling story to tell about the ramifications of the war and seeing the perspective of the men who were actually in it would bring a much needed flavor to cinematic experiences. Not to mention how it remind us to have sadly necessary conversations about the impact of terror and the faulty reactions to it.
Furthermore on the 24 comparison, the Fox series might actually have a more cinematic feel to it. It’s shot for television, 24 episodes with a tight year long schedule. But some lively editing and constant screen sharing of characters in condensed spaces added something only done in comic book panels by that point. Just to reiterate, I’m not saying 12 Strong needs to be like 24 or any variation of pop action media. I’m simply saying when you’re working in this medium, you should use it to its full advantage. And this movie is about as visually exciting as wet concrete.
Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish filmmaker and photojournalist, attempts to focalize his story on explaining facts and who these soldiers are. Unfortunately, there’s never an interesting placement of the camera. Everything is eye level with flat color grading and even more uninspired blocking in the scenes. For those interested, the energetic hyperrealism peaked with the Paul Greengrass Bourne films.
Thankfully, the cast is at least filled with performers who never fail to deliver quality. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle and more all do far more than a shallow script would normally allow. Trevante Rhodes and William Fichtner continue proving they deserve more time in the spotlight, while Hemsworth continues to prove he has charisma and talent outside of the Thor movies, though his name still isn’t quite the box office draw. That’s okay, though. People like me will always love him for his smaller movies like Blackhat. Oddly enough, Blackhat is a movie that may actually be more conscious of the impacts of modern warfare and terrorism.
It’s not a terrible movie and it doesn’t cause any disrespect to the people in the armed forces. Yet, it’s hard to imagine the immense quality improvement if 12 Strong would bring attention to a much needed discussion regarding the impact of the United States and its relationship to terrorism, warfare and the toll of being the first men in undiscovered warfare territories. Instead, we have another movie in another January weekend.