The structure of the action formula — group of people introduced, big action sequence, big action sequence, final big action sequence — doesn’t lend itself to nuance, which is a problem dealing with America’s 21st-century ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not only are these two conflicts complete quagmires — quintessential examples of a powerful nation blundering into a region full of centuries-old grudges and sectarian strife — but they’re also America’s Cable News wars: It’s impossible to enter into a a movie like 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi or American Sniper or Lone Survivor without preconceived opinions about the war they depict. I have mine, and you have yours, and you have yours, and so on …
Suffice to say 12 Strong is another mid-January release that plays a “true story” from that war in full Bruckheimer bombast. I put “true story” in quotation marks not because I wish to denigrate the experiences of men who actually served in the missions depicted here, only because there are clear and excessive liberties taken with pretty much every aspect of their experience. As there should be. The poster says it all: Chris Hemsworth (of Thor fame) riding bareback on a horse while wielding an assault rifle. Hot damn.
Among its like-minded films, 12 Strong felt the least jingoistic I’ve seen in awhile — likely because it’s just kind of a dull action movie that replays the “men go into situation, get overwhelmed, redshirts die, gunfire, artillery, solemn looks” too frequently. All the men have wives at home; all the Middle-Eastern men who work as their allies are Westernized while their enemies exhibit all the played-up evil Muslim stereotypes seen on Fox News. That’s not to say the jingoism is absent, but … in the context of the movie’s running time, and what it ultimately tries to say about the conflict, those elements feel washed out, tired, used.
When it does wander into the political fray, 12 Strong works hard to stay as neutral as possible and even pay lip service to the complexities of the conflict on the ground. “Americans will be just another tribe here,” says Dostum (Navid Negahban), whose role as an American ally in the war is amped up while his other biographical details — namely, being a tribal warlord in the region whose post-American career has been rife with corruption and other crimes — is reduced to “now serves as the Vice President of Afghanistan” in the pre-credits text box at the end. So, you know. Take the critique with the ra-ra.
Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson, and his American accent is surprisingly good given the trailers, which made it sound cringe-y. Michael Shannon plays his Chief Warrant Officer, Cal Spencer, but is really just Shannon being Shannon. Michael Pena, William Fichtner, and Rob Riggle appear, too.
There’s always been a real right-wing tendency to use the military as a signifier of both power and loyalty even if their propagandistic interests end up harming, on balance, the lives of people who truly believe in the serving their country as a higher cause regardless of their political standing. Walking into movies like this, the question isn’t “How well will this story depict the experience of those who served?” but rather “How far will it take their characters to further the idea that their unquestioning loyalty is their most heroic attribute?” Or, really, “How far will this movie go to depict this conflict as a one-sided event?”
I attended 12 Strong after watching Den of Thieves (and here’s Nick’s review of that turd). Thieves is about soldiers who returned from Iraq and started robbing banks. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen that in a movie; in fact, the issue of what happens to men and women who return from those wars with minimal support structure is one of the defining political questions of our era — one rarely asked, much less answered.
Do audiences seek out movies like 12 Strong to validate their lived experiences, to say “Well, it wasn’t all that bad,” or do audiences seek out movies like 12 Strong to validate their imagined experiences, having never gone over fight in those wars and only ever imagined them from the comfort of their couch? Moreover, do audiences with my political bents only go into movies like 12 Strong to confirm their preconceived biases about people who would go see 12 Strong for either of the other two reasons?
This is all too much thinking about 12 Strong because ultimately the movie is too resoundingly mediocre to register. The action formula doesn’t allow for much characterization or nuance, even when it tries its damndest, and the drab, grey, un-engaging nature of the endless action sequences wears thin halfway through its running time.