Coming to theaters from director Nicolai Fuglsig and Warner Bros. is the story of a group of soldiers who are dedicated to doing what is necessary by being “12 Strong.”
Cpt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is ready to settle into a different military job that allows him to be home with his wife and daughter. That is until Sept. 11, 2001, as he and almost every American watch the World Trade Center attack on television. Driven to return to his Special Forces team, he enlists the help of Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) to get back into the fold.
Quickly, the team is sent to Afghanistan. Nelson and his team, including Sgt. Sam Diller (Michael Pena), Sgt. Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), Sgt. Pat Essex (Austin Hebert), Sgt. Bill Bennett (Kenny Sheard) and more, arrive with gear in tow.
Now, Nelson must convince Col. John Mulholland (William Fichtner) that his team is ready to meet with Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida.
It quickly becomes clear that this will be a struggle as Nelson and Dostum have immediate trust issues that are understandable on both sides. Another surprise for the captain and men is that this battle is going to be fought in a way they could never imagine — on horseback, to get across the desolate land to meet up with other fighters.
The two men, who have no reason to trust one another, learn they need each other. By working together, they may not solve the war’s problems, but they develop a surprising understanding between two unlikely leaders.
Hemsworth as Nelson is a man dedicated to doing whatever he can, along with his men, to stop those responsible for the terror on American soil. His need to do so means he must say goodbye to his family once again, with the belief that he will be returning home. Hemsworth gives a strong performance of a leader who cares about his men but also begins to understand that what he and the crew want is the same thing Dostum wants. Trusting each other in a short amount of time proves to be frustrating, as Nelson’s goal is to finish the mission and bring the men home.
Negahban as Dostum is equally as dedicated as his American counterpart. Believing that there is only one way to fight the enemy who has taken over his country, he tries to believe the American soldiers mean well, but distrust on both sides is slowing them down. The cultural misunderstandings are swift and bring about quick reactions from these leaders. As Negahban’s character begins to share the feelings of the Afghani people, he explains that they want the terrorists just as gone as Nelson and his men do.
Shannon as Spencer believes that the mission can only succeed if Nelson is with them. This is a strong character, and what I mean by that is the person of Spencer fights through so much to be there for mission success. It is intense when the group realizes that getting help is difficult in the mountains.
Pena as Diller is another character who brings a little bit of laughter with a quick wit and straight delivery. At the same time, Pena can put on a game face that is not to be messed with. This isn’t his first go around playing characters close to war, with previous roles in “Lions for Lambs” and “World Trade Center.” I believe Pena is such an underutilized actor, and with every role he confirms it.
Fichtner as Mulholland has to be convinced to send in Nelson and his men on a mission that could prove to be a disaster. Once he sends them to meet with Dostum, it is one step at a time filled with intensity.
“12 Strong” is a totally different look at the war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 because it gives both sides of the fight. The American soldiers made their feelings quite clear as to why they wanted to go for a dangerous mission in Afghanistan, but we also learn that Dostum and his men have a view as well. To me, that is a fantastic way to bring this story to the screen and see why each leader and their men mistrust each other.
From the moment the two men arrive, the tension and mistrust are so thick on the screen. That is where the duality of emotion for the viewer kicks in, because, of course, it is understandable that the American soldiers and Afghani soldiers would be wary of one another. As the film continues and the Afghans explain what life has been like — a change happens, not just between the characters on screen but for the audience as well.
There are such amazing scenes that either made my jaw drop or held my breath. That’s what “12 Strong” does. It takes you inside an unexpected war to learn about people who are trying to survive terror themselves and come together in unexpected ways.
Doug Stanton is the author of the book “Horse Soldiers,” on which the film is based. “I wanted this to be a book that you would read about guys surviving a harrowing situation,” he says. “They were told very little about their mission except to attack terrorist camps, but not told the would have to ride a horse to do it.”
Also to celebrate these brave soldiers who fought on horseback, sculptor Douwe Blumberg created the bronze statue “De Oppresso Liber” — the motto of U.S. Army Special Forces — located in New York’s Liberty Park, guarding the attack site. I hope one day to see it for myself.
In the end — on Sept. 11, 2001, the world watched in terror, and on Sept. 12, 2001, they volunteered to fight!