12 Strong, based on Doug Stanton’s novel “Horse Soldiers,” reveals the hair-raising reality of war and the infallible courage needed to face it and endure.
Set in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, 11 men under the leadership of Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) volunteer to go beyond enemy lines into Northern Afghanistan and embed with local warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to fight back against the Taliban on horseback.
What begins as ego-driven patriotic quest for justice soon becomes a tale of unflinching resolve and friendship backed by an overabundance of humanity that emerges when people are pushed to their limits.
Nicolai Fuglsig, a relatively unknown director, has given an unknown story the recognition it deserves, and honoured 12 unknown soldiers who returned home uncelebrated. His work is elevated by the script, written by Ted Tally (Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Town) that while at times is a little too alpha bravo macho, is true to the hoorah vibe that we’ve become accustomed to in a blockbuster Jerry Bruckheimer war film.
12 Strong is rooted with a deep sense of duty and honour, and the call to arms is loud and clear: “Five weeks ago, 19 men attacked our country. The 12 of you will be the first to fight back.”
Central to the film’s plot is the bonds of friendship and respect that form between Nelson and Dostum, as both men share the responsibility and weight of the work they must do and the lives in their hands. Hemsworth and Negahban carry the success of this, deftly supported by the underrated Michael Shannon and quietly brilliant Michael Pena, both of whom deserve more screen time for their exceptional performances.
What this film does incredibly well is draw attention to the little details of warzone life, as the men write their final letters home before packing their wedding rings into ziplock bags. The reality of these scenes is brutally heart-wrenching and yet the authenticity of these moments gives the audience yet another reason to root for Nelson and his team.
It seems that our home-grown Hemsworth will forever be a hero, regardless of whether he’s wielding a mythical hammer, or leading an infantry charge from the back of an Arabian stallion. Hemsworth brings to the role of Nelson a gravitas that is not overwritten or overplayed, but that gives him enough grit for us to recognise that he is not just another soldier, but to believe that he represents a real man who made a real sacrifice.
The real success of this film is that the story of the horse soldiers can finally be given the recognition it deserves. For the 12 men who volunteered to do the impossible and returned home triumphant after only 3 weeks in-country received no thanks or acknowledgment. But they knew that before they left.
Regardless of what anyone may think about the Afghan war, or the US’s involvement in the Middle East, the heroism and personal sacrifice of the horse soldiers must be seen to be believed.
12 Strong is in cinemas today.
Review by Isabelle Aswad