12 Strong (AUS - MA15+ / UK - 15 / US - R)

In a word: Honourable

12 Strong

 A scene from 12 Strong. 

 

"12 Strong...feels like a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood. When you see Chris Hemsworth on horseback it is not hard to imagine him as a John Wayne-style hero, fighting the good fight against the bad guys with a healthy dose of patriotism and grit. Don’t expect a particularly deep or authentic portrayal of the conflict, rather set your expectations to an old-fashioned telling of a new kind of war."

Australia’s own Chris Hemsworth has had a meteoric rise to success. First he moved us with his Hollywood debut in Star Trek as Kirk senior, then he awed us with Thor, thrilled us with Snow White and The Huntsman and The Heart of the Sea. They haven’t all been hits - some of the misses include the ill advised reboot of Ghostbusters and a disappointing Blackhat. Which list 12 Strong falls into remains to be seen.

Based on the book Horse Soldiers, the film tells the remarkable true story of the US Special Forces team, Task Force Dagger, and their astonishing accomplishments in Afghanistan following the attacks in the US on 9/11. Their actions up until recently were classified and Hollywood is now continuing its grand tradition of honouring the armed forces for extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism.

Task Force Dagger, led by Captain Mitch Nelson (played by Hemsworth), is a team of 12 that includes familiar faces Michael Shannon (who plays Hal Spencer) and Michael Pena (who plays Sam Diller). Their seemingly impossible mission is to go deep into the heart of Afghanistan, accessible only by horses, and form an alliance with the local forces to fight the Taliban. Vastly outnumbered, they battle harsh terrain, limited supplies, language barriers, hunger, cold and mistrust - not to mention all the tanks, rockets and guns aimed their way. What these 12 soldiers accomplish in just a couple of months is nothing short of a miracle.

Although the basic facts of the story are true, this cinematic experience lacks a sense of authenticity. The battle scenes feel staged and the characters appear to have the same Hollywood cloak of protection that Rambo once wore, enabling our cast to charge full frontal into an armed enemy line - with horses. If the film is to be believed, the enemy are worse at shooting than Star Wars Stormtroopers and rarely do we feel a sense of real danger amidst all the violence.

Though the action falls short, the film has more success portraying the life of the soldiers in such a foreign environment. The interactions with the enigmatic local general, their horses, teenage bodyguards and a local shepherd are sometimes intriguing and other times humourous. There was the opportunity to explore the complexities of the war in more depth but first time director Nicolai Fuglsig eschews this in favour of making the heroes look as heroic as possible and the enemy as bad as they can be.

In order to best appreciate the film, it's worth reflecting on how war has been portrayed on film. Following World War II, there was a clear delineation of good vs evil and the films focused on heroic deeds of patriotism. Things changed after the Vietnam War and films of the genre became grittier, more graphic and began to explore the ambiguities of war - think of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Born on the 4th of July. In recent times, it has become increasingly popular to tell the true stories of war heroes but the evolution of the genre has meant that films still showed the horrors and dangers of war while honouring the deeds of the soldiers - Hacksaw Ridge, We Were Soldiers, American Sniper and Lone Survivor are good examples.

12 Strong is an exception to this trend and feels like a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood. When you see Chris Hemsworth on horseback it is not hard to imagine him as a John Wayne-style hero, fighting the good fight against the bad guys with a healthy dose of patriotism and grit. Don’t expect a particularly deep or authentic portrayal of the conflict, rather set your expectations to an old-fashioned telling of a new kind of war.