Horse Soldiers Lose Their Way
Directed By Nicolai Fuglsig / 2018
Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong, based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, tells the true story of a squad of American Soldiers who were sent to Afghanistan in the weeks immediately after 9/11. They were to work with local warlords to locate Taliban strongholds and destroy them via the use of targeted airstrikes. That’s not a bad plan, and in theory it should work brilliantly. The squad soon discovers that theory doesn’t always match up with the real world and they have to adjust their thinking if they are going to succeed. That’s a setup for a pretty good movie, and if you cast Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña in key roles, it should work brilliantly. But Fuglsig’s movie doesn’t quite come together and the result is a disappointment.
Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Star Trek) plays Captain Mitch Nelson. Nelson has recently graduated to a desk job so as be able to spend more time with his family. When the 9/11 attacks occur, yet he feels the strong pull of duty to his country and demands to go back out into the field. His team, which includes Shannon as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer and Peña as Sgt First Class Sam Diller, is quickly re-assembled. Nelson and his men say goodbye to their families (in scenes that are legally required to be in all war movies), and they’re off to their desert base to meet the man in charge, Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner). Mulholland isn’t initially impressed with Nelson. Nelson is one of those guys that looks great on paper, he has all the right training and skill sets, but he has no actual combat experience. Nelson, however, surprises Mulholland with his clear-eyed vision of what the job in Afghanistan requires, and Nelson’s squad of 12 men get the green light.
[Director Nicolai] Fuglsig’s movie doesn’t quite come together and the result is a disappointment
I know that what I’ve been describing so far sounds like a pretty standard set-up for a war movie: the brash young captain, the gruff and experienced NCO, the tearful goodbyes etc. And actually, that’s what 12 Strong has been up to this point. Hitting all of the requisite war movie tropes isn’t in and of itself a bad thing- we expect certain genres to follow familiar beats, that’s why they’re genres. But 12 Strong hasn’t given us anything more beyond those tropes. You have a cast that’s capable of some great character work, but the screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig hasn’t given them any characters to play- just cliché. We like these guys because we like Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Peña, but we’re not that invested in their fates because we’re not given anything specific to these characters to like.
Anyway, the squad’s mission is to head deep into the heart of the country where they will hook up with General Dostum, played by Navid Negahban (Homeland, American Sniper). Dostum is leading a small army against the Taliban in the northern part of Afghanistan. He is one of many local leaders that allied themselves with the United States to oppose the Taliban’s rule, but these leaders were often times just as opposed to each other. Like Mulholland, Dostum has his doubts about Nelson. Dostum says that Nelson has a soldier’s brain, but not a warrior’s heart. He’s concerned that Nelson doesn’t have what it takes to win this fight- which is not a willingness to kill the enemy, but a willingness to sacrifice his men for the cause. Nelson doesn’t see that as a weakness. In fact, he repeatedly promises his men that not only will they all make it back alive, but that they can get their job done in far less time than the US Army expects them to be able to do. I did mention he was brash, didn’t I?
From there, the movie gets down to business and the squad gets to the business of dropping bombs onto the Taliban. This being a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, one expects a high level of fireworks and in this regard, the film does not disappoint. The initial battle sequences are thrilling. The trouble is that by the time we see a second or third battle, they’ve all begun to look the same. Director Fuglsig doesn’t do enough to distinguish one from another in terms of tactics, or geography; all the battles seem to occur in the same rock-and-rubble strewn valley. Even the final, climactic fight feels like a retread of what we’ve seen before.
This is a movie where modern US Soldiers ride horses into battle against missile-firing tanks, and the results are ho-hum.
What ultimately does 12 Strong in for me, though, is the lack of dramatic stakes. The movie continually tells us how important a strategic goal is, or how vital it is to get competing warlords to work together, or how bad it is when one general decides to take his men and go home, but we never feel those things. The dramatic story beats never have any weight to them. In one instance, we keep hearing about this 120-mile stretch of land where there’s no food, water or cover from the enemy. Wow, I bet having to cross that zone would make a dramatic sequence, wouldn’t it? I bet it would, if we actually saw the men cross it. The movie is one example after another of the perils of telling not showing. The real dramatic beats are rushed through and glossed over just to get us to the next battle. Unfortunately, because it hasn’t taken the time to build on its characters, or help the audience feel what the stakes in that battle are, the action is lifeless. This is a movie where modern US Soldiers ride horses into battle against missile-firing tanks, and the results are ho-hum. Boring is one trope a war movie shouldn’t ever invoke.