Each January brings a new year, a fresh start, and a 21st century war movie. The trend started with Zero Dark Thirty in 2013, and continued in subsequent years with Lone Survivor, American Sniper, and 13 Hours, each of which went into wide release in the year’s first month. The release date implies a cynical counterprogramming strategy. While “coastal elites” catch up on Oscar hopefuls, distributors hope “real Americans” will flood the multiplexes to have their patriotism reaffirmed by stories of military heroism.
When these films succeed, however, it is due to their strong craft and not their politics. A good war film applies a thoughtful, often critical eye to both the men and their mission.
12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers does neither. It’s a pure, concentrated rush of war propaganda that robs its true story of every scrap of nuance and poeticism. Every character is an unconditional hero, and every utterance is a cliche. The battle scenes are somehow boring, and most damaging, the film fails to provide any real sense of stakes. For a war film, that’s death.
What’s most confounding about this failed project is why so many worthy actors decided to enlist. Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, who heads a special forces team assigned to the first post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan. The goal is to take control of a Taliban city, an assignment his commander describes as “near-suicide.” But the film never bothers to convince us of either its danger or strategic importance. Instead, the earnest desire of Nelson’s men—played by Michael Peña, Michael Shannon, and a cadre of bearded white guys—to fight back is foregrounded, while the pesky details of plot, drama, and characterization take a backseat. These men are so eager to strike back after 9/11 that neither they nor the film take the time to really understand the mission.
Nothing that follows is a surprise, except for how few surprises there are. The mission has its predictable setbacks and eventual victories. Even the film’s primary hook—these soldiers ride horses—is wasted. The team basically rides the horses to the battle, where they hop off them and fight. The lack of equine excitement could be due to the new scrutiny on animal welfare in films. With animal rights activists empowered and ready to protest at any hint of abuse on sets, maybe the makers of 12 Strong felt hamstrung. Or maybe there wasn’t enough imagination among the filmmakers to figure out a way to make them interesting.
But you wouldn’t need fighting horses if the film cared the slightest bit about its human characters. Each soldier is given at most a single personality trait, and each one is broader than the last. Hemsworth’s character is inexperienced in combat. Shannon is old. Peña is horny. One of the other guys has glasses. Beyond that, there is nothing to distinguish them from each other, no chance of seeing them as anything more than symbols of American heroism.
To be generous, we could say that veteran screenwriters Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) intended them to be interchangeable. If you squint, you could see that the film is showing how soldiers sacrifice their individual personalities to create a cohesive unit. Even so, its impact on the film is devastating. When the bullets, rockets, and bombs start flying, none of it seems to matter, and it doesn’t help that the battle scenes, as staged by rookie director Nicolai Fuglsig, are basically incomprehensible anyway.
As it plays out over the course of the film’s excessive 130-minute runtime, we know who we want to win, but we don’t know why. We’re rooting for an idea instead of people. That’s the basis for military sacrifice, but it’s the antithesis of drama, which makes 12 Strong not just a shoddy film but also piss-poor propaganda.
12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers opens Friday in theaters everywhere.