If we take for granted that war is hell, and we can all agree that hell is other people, you’ll begin to get to the heart of what 12 Strong might be going for. From the carefully controlled disorientation surrounding the first team of Green Berets sent in to fight alongside the Northern Alliance in October 2001, the film descends quickly into a storm of shaky alliances, opportunistic nihilism and strangely heartfelt philosophical musings on what it means to live as a warrior versus being paid to be a soldier.
It’s a sprawling and leaden Bruckheimer monster, absolutely, but it’s also the rare one of those monsters whose pieces seem to click. That it works best when demonstrating just how disastrous airstrikes can get when you have no idea where your target is should give you some idea of just how bizarre things eventually get here.
I want to say the first and largest offense the movie offers is a complete lack of characters, but that’s actually undercutting the larger themes of general confusion and mistrust that permeate the entire film. By presenting the facts of the operation this team is undertaking, it would have been nice to at least have had one or two strong personalities that amounted to more than “I’m a soldier, and therefore I’m here to fight the Taliban” to root for, or at least identify with. Sure. But I’m going to allow it. Because that operation is, for lack of a more constructive term, insane, and it’s a miracle that any of this ended up making sense on screen at all.
Twelve soldiers, the first Americans sent in to fight in this war, are charged with taking four primary targets, the Taliban stronghold cities, that will lead to the fall of their leadership and end the war. They must cross miles of desert and mountain ranges in winter conditions on foot and eventually on horseback, team up with a faction of the Northern Alliance for intelligence and tactical support, then call in airstrikes once those targets are identified and in range. But the Northern Alliance exists in name only, a group of fractured cells all fighting their own civil wars who will turn on each other and forget about that whole Taliban thing the second they meet each other on the battlefield.
Essentially episodic in nature, 12 Strong moves from target to target, racking up kills and moving the plot forward but never really advancing us any further in anyone’s emotional journey. Aside from a commanding officer (the great William Fichtner) telling Captain Mitch (the Mighty Thor, Chris Hemsworth) that the key to winning any war is having a reason to fight before handing him a piece of the twin towers to keep in his pocket, we never get any real motivation for why anyone would ever sign up for a job like this.
So it’s a well-made picture about following orders. And despite a few direct cinematic quotes from some pretty random sources (both Schumacher’s Tigerland and De Palma’s Casualties of War seem to be influences) and the vague praise that it’s never boring, in the end it amounts to little more than being the best war movie released the same week as Forever My Girl.