’12 Strong’ review: True story of ‘Horse Soldiers’ not a typical war movie

Click to play video: 'Movie Trailer: 12 Strong'
Movie Trailer: 12 Strong
WATCH: '12 Strong' trailer – Jan 10, 2018

12 Strong, based on the true story of the “Horse Soldiers,” is saved by its connection to reality.

This group of men from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Green Berets was deployed to Afghanistan weeks after the 9/11 attacks for a top-secret mission: to take out al Qaeda and the Taliban, specifically a local warlord and his followers, so the Americans could seize control of a key city. They were the first U.S. military to engage with the perceived 9/11 perpetrators, and they felt like the entire country was riding into the Middle East on their shoulders.

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The men complete their mission on horseback, a feat never accomplished before, and when you consider that the Americans were facing tanks, heavy artillery and Afghan soldiers familiar with the territory, that’s pretty spectacular.

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Chris Hemsworth is the leader of the group of soldiers, and his character Mitch Nelson is 100 per cent confident in everything he does. To say he’s fearless is an understatement.

Is he good in the role?

Hemsworth puts on his best military face to play Nelson, and for the most part, he succeeds. The other more senior military members on scene (among them, Michael Shannon as Hal Spencer and an odd-looking, clean-shaven William Fichtner as Colonel Mulholland) give Nelson a hard time about his inexperience, but of course he emerges as the proverbial golden child. You’ll never worry for his life. (He’s so certain that he’ll return home unscathed, and so vocal about it, that it almost becomes annoying.)

Aside from the horse aspect, is this just another war movie?

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Admittedly, the horse aspect of the movie is its best part; the rest of the film follows the same war-movie tropes. The fact that the movie’s story is (generally) real helps quash any attempts to be cynical about it. It’s tough to argue “There are barely any people of colour in this movie who aren’t enemies!” when that’s actually the demographic of these Green Berets and their foes.

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In 12 Strong, women are an afterthought, a barely-there presence left at home with the kids. At most, they serve as motivation for the men to succeed at war, but that’s a stretch here outside of a brief mention or a quick glance at a wallet-sized photo. One of the women even acknowledges that she’s nothing more than “a soldier’s wife” as she dutifully accepts that her husband may not return home. (Before you send me angry emails, I’m speaking only in the context of this movie — I am not minimizing the difficulty many military wives and families go through.)

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Make no mistake: this is a movie about men, for men. Hemsworth doesn’t doff his shirt at any juncture, either, so the eye candy is minimal.

Is it an accurate depiction of war?

The scenes of war are harrowing and well-shot. While they get repetitive, there’s enough action here to keep you engaged. One uncomfortable part of 12 Strong is the lengths the film goes to demonize the enemy and justify the endless killing. Yes, the Taliban is a horrible, senseless terrorist organization, but they’re presented in the movie as faceless barbarians, without any context about how they formed or why their motivations are what they are.

Even more awkward is the knowledge that these brave men thought their actions would save the U.S. from any further terrorist attacks, which clearly did not happen. They also thought they were saving Afghanistan from the grip of al Qaeda, which has also turned out to be false. No one back home was made aware of their mission — it was top-secret, remember — so in that sense, it’s almost sad that their bravery went unnoticed and had barely any impact in the war on terror. But that’s another story.

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So what’s the bottom line?

An almost emotionless war movie, 12 Strong has enough action to keep you interested, but you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable when you think about the Middle East and how things have progressed since 9/11. Focusing solely on this individual story may be the better bet: this group of men, who thought their country’s future depended on them, persevered and came out victorious, which is nothing to scoff at.

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’12 Strong’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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