Jerry Bruckheimer, Hollywood’s leading “chickenhawk” producer since the Ronald Reagan “Top Gun” era, starts his latest movie militaria with a quick history lesson.
“12 Strong” is about Green Berets sent into Afghanistan to start the process of dismantling the Taliban and by extension Al Qaeda, so showing the first attack on the World Trade Center (a truck bomb) and news footage of the U.S. embassies in Africa attacks and the U.S.S. Cole assault is fair game as context.
Unnecessary, but fair.
Stick Bill Clinton’s face on the TV, if you’re of a mind. And then, show us Vladimir Putin recalling his telephone warning to “my friend,” George W. Bush, days before 9/11. Which Bush didn’t do much with, as he was on vacation. Again.
Sorry to point this out, but this propaganda was shoved onto the front of the movie for a reason.
Maybe director Nicolai Fuglslig insisted on that (I’ve never heard of him either), but the whole montage feels like a blatant attempt to shift the blame for a colossal blunder away from the colossal foul-up who vacationed his way into letting it happen, George W. Bush.
Like Eastwood, Bruckheimer knows his audience, and he’s blatantly pandering to them from the start, rewriting history to fit their Fox News twisted point of view. That doesn’t utterly sour this swashbuckling version on the rare bit of good news to come out of Afghanistan during Bush’s tenure. But it makes you question almost every thing you see afterwards, “true story” claims be damned.
Chris Hemsworth is the young Captain Mitch Nelson, untested by combat and about to start a desk job, allowed to re-assemble a team to lead the first American assault on the failed state that provided safe harbor to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He convinces his commanding officer (Rob Riggle) to let him get “the band back together,” which means putting a “stop loss” on his retiring sergeant (Michael Shannon) and getting the men who trained with him (Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill, Austen Hebert, Austin Stowell, Jack Kesy, Kenneth Miller, Kenny Sheard, Ben O’Toole) back in the fold and into the field.
Nelson is smart enough to see the “big” combat picture, which convinces Col. Mulholland (William Fichtner) that he’s the guy to go in, meet up with the Northern Alliance, joining their fight against the Taliban and coordinate American air power to crush those who sheltered America’s enemies.
As the men say goodbye to their womenfolk, Nelson is given a talisman, a piece of the shattered World Trade Center, to carry into battle.
He and his men joke about the longer-than-long odds, “dying with their boots on,” singing “The Ballad of the Green Berets” as they fly into battle. Upon arrival, they hole up in a village the CIA nicknamed “The Alamo.”
“You know everybody died at the Alamo, right?” Might be best to keep that to yourself.
But it’s in-country that “12 Strong” loses some of that Bruckheimer swagger (some) and gets real. It’s a delicate situation, with tribal rivalries and blood feuds that pre-date the Russian invasion there, decades before.
Their liaison, the militia General Dostum, played with flinty flourishes by Navid Negahban of TV’s “Homeland.” Damned if he doesn’t get most of the movie’s best lines, a Pashtun speaking poet who “tests” Nelson, sizes him up and decides he’d rather deal with grizzled Sgt. Spencer, a combat vet with “the killer eyes.”
“Your mission will fail because you fear death…You have the sky, but wars are won in the dust!”
The rules of engagement are, to say the least, a little weird. Nelson wants confirmation they’re attacking the Taliban and not some other militia before calling in an airstrike Dostum gets on the walkie talkie and trash-talks the murderous, hawk-nosed Taliban leader (Numan Acar).
“Razzan! Son of a dog! The Americans will kill you!”
There’s a brisk, headlong ferocity to the combat scenes as the Americans prod the outnumbered but brave alliance fighters into following their strategy, seizing small strongholds on the way to taking the linchpin town that will let the whole of northern Afghanistan fall to create an American staging area for the main invasion.
The firefights are vigorous video-game shootouts with tanks, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns where legions of the enemy fall and our guys don’t. Which actually happened. The concussive impact of the air raids will shake you in your seat, even as they feed the military myth of the “surgical strike.”
There are cavalry charges, communication breakdowns and a Donald Rumsfeld press conference, reading a situation report live to a compliant press.
Most of us are a little too jaded or at least sober-minded to swallow this at face value. Carefully limiting the “history” you tell gives the impression of competence, quick victory and a short war.
“12 Strong” is “We Were Soldiers” in Afghanistan, accurate, flag-waving and intentionally and myopically incomplete. The picture ends before Bush lets bin Laden escape the country, leaves out the Bin Ladens allowed to flee the U.S. after 9/11, and glibly ignores the years-long hunt it took to bring the 9/11 leader to “Zero Dark Thirty” justice.
We’ve seen too much “real news,” too many documentaries and too many better films to swallow this heartland agitprop at face value. Bruckheimer can “remember” this any way he sees fit. And I guess remaking “13 Hours” (at Benghazi) was off the table.
MPAA Rating: R for war violence and language throughout
Cast: Chris Hemsworthy, Michael Shannon, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Michael Pena, Rob Riggle
Running time: 2:10