While it seems difficult to believe, we’re quickly approaching the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In just three years, we will be just as many years away from 2001 as Marty McFly was from 1955 in Back to the Future. Mind blowing. With the passage of time, the subject becomes an increasing focus for cultural analysis. It is out of this environment which 12 Strong emerges. How does the Chris Hemsworth led war picture treat the decidedly complicated subject matter.
12 Strong follows the reportedly true story of the “Horse Soldiers”. The group is one of the first military units on the ground in Afghanistan in the days following the September 11th terrorist attacks. The unit is led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon). Michael Pena, William Fichtner and Rob Riggle co-star. The film comes from writers Ted Tally and Peter Craig. Director Nicolai Fuglsig makes his feature film debut.
12 Strong is a team drama much in the same vein as Only the Brave and Saving Private Ryan. In these movies, it is the characters who shoulder the story’s heart and emotion. Unfortunately, this is where 12 Strong fails on a number of accounts.
The pacing of the film feels decidedly awkward. The film’s marketing campaign makes no secret of its 9/11 connection. However, for such a highly emotional subject matter, the film seems oddly blasé about it. Many still remember the events of that day, and they also serve to inspire the movie’s characters to action. Yet, the movie’s treatment of the traumatic events doesn’t convey the emotion it strives for. Instead, there’s some archival news footage, a few terse conversations, and suddenly our characters are smack dab in the middle of the plot.
Much of the movie revolves around the unit of soldiers as we follow them to their ultimate objective, the invasion of a Taliban stronghold. For this to work, the audience must invest emotionally in this group of men as well as the bond holding them together. Unfortunately, beyond our leads (Hemsworth, Shannon and Peña) there is little character development. We don’t truly get to know these men.
In fact, even our leads feel wasted in this largely generic war film. Chris Hemsworth brings his traditional charisma and likability to his role. However, inconsistencies in the script seem particularly notable in his character. Early in the film, the military leadership does everything they can to tear down Nelson. Superiors describe the young soldier as a “career wrecker”. His superiors also deliver some vague character exposition about goings on in “Kuwait”. However, the script ignores these points after the first act. Hemsworth is an incredibly talented actor, and recent roles have shown his skill at carrying complex and layered films. Unfortunately, 12 Strong simply does not bring enough to create an interesting performance.
Furthermore, Nelson’s bad-boy development in the opening act doesn’t gel with Hemsworth’s casting. He’s just so likable. Why does no one like him? To make matters worse, the script shifts the character into the second act. Suddenly, Nelson’s youth and innocence often stands in the way of his mission. Multiple characters emphasise that Nelson isn’t a killer. Hal Spencer is a killer. The inconsistencies in the script makes it difficult for Hemsworth (or any actor) to convey the narrative shift the writer is apparently going for.
Now, the film does thrive when it embraces its action adventure roots. The movie contains a number of incredibly strong battle sequences. They are pulse pounding, tense and (in most instances) realistic. Hemsworth is no stranger to action movies, and carries much of the work on this back. The film’s strong graphics waver a bit during a complicated rocket sequence. It is noticeable, but largely works in the scheme of the movie. When this film is allowed to just be action movie, it is a fun and entertaining viewing.
However, 12 Strong brings a problematic view of gender and sexuality to the screen. Women exist for two purposes in the narrative. They are either the saintly, understanding military wife waiting at home, or they are Afghani women living under the tyrannical reign of the Taliban. While women were in the military, serving and dying in the Afghan war, they are largely absent from this film. When the narrative needs a bit of an emotional gut punch, they trot out the question of gender rights. At one point, Taliban soldiers execute a woman accused of teaching three girls in a small village to read. In another moment, a woman is stoned. However, these moments are given little development, and ultimately serves only to serve as a shallow secondary motivation to our characters.
The film unfortunately finds itself as part of a complicated discussion. Danish director Nicolai Fuglsig comes to features from the world of commercials. Fuglsig enjoyed an unprecedented string of good luck managing to nail down a large scale war film, with decidedly A-List talent for his feature film debut. However, it is well reported that numbers of male directors absolutely dwarf females behind the camera. In 2016, Variety quoted Kathleen Kennedy (in reference to the Star Wars films), “We want to make sure that when we bring in a female director…. they’re set up for success. They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience”.
This view seems to be the prevailing one in Hollywood as it relates to female directors. Prior to 2017’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins hadn’t made a film since her 2003 Oscar winner Monster. In fact, women directed only 11% of the top 250 films in 2017. However, Hollywood producers are known to line-up in order to hand the next up-and-coming male director a franchise. Prior to landing Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn’s largest film (Slither) grossed just over $12,000,000 on a $15,000,000 budget.
Furthermore, Director Collin Trevorrow landed Jurassic World off his work on Safety Not Guaranteed. The indie darling grossed just over $4,000,000 on a budget of (reportedly) $750,000. There are dozens of other examples which continue to show this double standard. Why is Hollywood so reticent to take a chance on up-and-coming (or established, for that matter) female filmmakers, while they’re perfectly willing to hand large scale films to male directors with little to no big-budget experience.
Ultimately, 12 Strong is a serviceable war film, but that’s about it. Outside of the action/war sequences, there’s little to string this film through the 2 hour runtime. Watching normally interesting and likeable actors give so-so performances, it seems this film could have been a strong straight-to-DVD release in different hands. All of the heart and emotion in the story has been lost in the quest for a moderately entertaining popcorn film.
12 Strong opens in theatres this Friday.