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Review: 12 Strong (2018)

12 Strong (2018)

Directed by: Nicolai Fuglsig

Premise: Based on true events. In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack, a United States Special Forces team is sent to Afghanistan. They partner with a division of the Northern Alliance in the first strike against the Taliban. 

What Works: 12 Strong is in many respects an old fashioned Hollywood movie in the mold of classic westerns and post-World War II combat pictures such as Bataan and Sands of Iwo Jima. Those movies had an unapologetically jingoistic spirit and celebrated American military might. Right or wrong, this is exactly the sort of movie that 12 Strong aims to be and it succeeds. Viewers who enjoy films like that ought to be satisfied with 12 Strong. It offers plenty of military action and the aftermath of the September 11th attack gives the violence a pretext of justice that allows us to enjoy it. 12 Strong is also successful as a shoot-‘em-up spectacle. The set pieces are exciting and executed with a sense of showmanship and tension and the picture is well photographed.

What Doesn’t: There is one respect in which 12 Strong fails as combat entertainment and that its lack of characterization. In a lot of these kinds of movies each member of the team fulfills a type. This convention is found in war movies as diverse as The Dirty Dozen, Stripes, and Saving Private Ryan. The soldiers of 12 Strong aren’t types.  They have no distinguishing characteristics. This undercuts one of the pleasures of the buddies-in-combat film that 12 Strong is intended to be. But the bigger problem with 12 Strong is how clueless it is about the legacy of American military intervention in Afghanistan. There is a key moment in 12 Strong in which the American soldiers criticize the senior Afghanistan military leader for not seeing the big picture; that same criticism is true of this movie. Uninformed viewers could come away from 12 Strong with the impression that the war in Afghanistan is over when in fact it is still going a decade and a half after the events in the film and the Taliban remains a viable player in that country and an ongoing security threat. The filmmakers adopt some of the cinematic styles of other recent military pictures such as Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down but 12 Strong much more closely resembles Rambo III. It is that simplistic, that stupid, and that divorced from reality.

Bottom Line: 12 Strong delivers exactly the kind of militaristic shoot-’em-up entertainment that Hollywood has long done so well. But it is also a troubling movie that doesn’t illuminate the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and actually distorts our understanding of it.

Episode: #684 (February 5, 2018)