12 STRONG ★★★
(MA15+) 130 minutes
12 Strong has everything you want in a war picture, almost. The action is frequent and gripping, the heroism present but understated, and the sense of tactical complexity has survived the script-writing process, so there is more geo-political subtlety than one expects from a post-9/11 American war movie.
For the red-blooded American male audience for which it is primarily intended, it also has a heapin' helpin' of the things people in other parts of the world sometimes despise – the hero-shots of American soldiers in slow-motion walking towards camera after the successful completion of their mission, the thrilling aerials of the battlefield (before and after Armageddon) and the quiet sentimental moments as real men look at pictures of wives, girlfriends and kids, dreaming of home. It even has the one-line cliches that every war movie of the last 20 years can't seem to resist. My favourite is "let's do this!"
The most interesting part about 12 Strong is that some of it, maybe even a lot of it, might be true, but since Hollywood doesn't care about whether it is or not, it's hard to tell which bits they faked. You can be sure some of it never happened. On the other hand, a lot of this feels pretty credible, even with the compulsory patriotic over-egging.
The story concerns 12 American special forces men who went into Afghanistan a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks to fight with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Their mission was secret – which just means it takes a little longer for it to end up becoming a movie. This one has been in planning since 2009, shortly after Doug Stanton's non-fiction book told the story of these men, who took to horses to fight with their (mainly Pashtun) allies.
Chris Hemsworth has become the world's favourite action man in the last year or two. He's not quite the new Errol Flynn, because Errol was never this buff, but he has carved out a remarkable niche – a masculine ideal who's both soft and strong, funny and hard, and capable of making bad lines sound good.
He has to use all of those talents here as Captain Mitch Nelson, a brilliant soldier who has never actually seen action. Michael Shannon plays his mentor, who backs him up when he demands to lead his old team into Afghanistan to get the bad guys. Michael Pena is his usual reliable sidekick as Sergeant Diller, and David Negahban does good work as Northern Alliance General Dostum, who knows more about war than any of these damned Yankees.
If this film had been made 20 years ago, I guarantee it would have been much stupider than it is. The American war movie since 9/11 has had to sharpen up: people still want wish-fulfilling action, with lots of dead enemy, but they also want to know a bit more about who they are fighting and why.
That's where 12 Strong excels: it offers more complexity than most in this genre. Nelson's soldiers are smarter, less gung-ho, and more informed about Afghan politics and history than I expected.
The sentimental bits are less cloying, too, even if still annoying. One major question of American strategy in Afghanistan – whether you can win a war from the air – is front and centre in the strategic arguments between the General and the GI. It makes the film less dumb than much of the competition.
It's still a shoot-'em-up fantasy and a recruiting movie, like most big budget war pictures. I have no doubt that some, possibly many, American teenagers will watch this and enlist soon after.
It doesn't matter how realistic the depictions of death and suffering become, the American war movie basically sells adrenaline wrapped in patriotism. Young men are interested in a bit of both. Nowhere here does it mention that the Americans armed the Taliban to fight the Russians, but I never really expected it would. It may be "based on a true story", but it's less than a history lesson.
Paul Byrnes was director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1989 to 1998. He has been a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald for 20 years. In 2007, he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall prize for critical writing, the highest award in the Australian media for critics in any genre.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter