Saturday, May 19, 2018

Movie Reviews: 12 Strong

12 Strong
directed by Nicolai Fuglsig
Competent but not compelling war movie where Thor has a carbine instead of a hammer.
Some war movies purport to tell it it like it is without taking sides, whether or not they also indulge in the post Saving Private Ryan level of explicit carnage. Other war movies have a high degree of cynicism and anger towards war in general and US foreign policy in particular. In these movies the real bad guys are the high ranking officers who withhold resources and information from brave combat soldiers, greedy corporate managers who couldn't care less how many American soldiers die to make a 3rd world country safe for business, or white supremacists who salivate at the possibility of being able to terrorize, rape or kill non-whites with the legal imprimatur of the United States government. Still other war movies are more interested in the impact of war on the minds and souls of the men who are engaged in it. Other war movies are just excuses to show gore as much as possible.

And then of course there are war movies that uncritically accept American versions of the conflict and rather reactionary right wing versions at that. Most war movies tend towards one of these polarities, even if most also have varying mixes of these styles contained within. 12 Strong is a movie that likes to think it's telling it like it was, with a healthy helping of good old fashioned American heroism, patriotism and masculinity. There aren't any conflicted heroes here or shadowy civilian "agents" with hidden agendas.

To ensure that the audience doesn't consider too many ugly dilemmas the movie ignores the widespread Afghanistan warlord  (particularly the Northern Alliance) practice of "Bachi Bazi" or boy play, which is as you might surmise, institutionalized homosexual pedophilia. In real life this caused some serious problems and incidents between Afghan Northern Alliance soldiers and warlords who saw nothing wrong with this, viewing it as part of their culture, and American soldiers and other military personnel who considered it something worthy of a beating, imprisonment, shunning or death. The Taliban sometimes won Afghan civilian support by banning the practice or executing perpetrators. The director limits himself to depicting American adversaries who do everything but twirl their mustaches to show their moral depravity while the American allies are simply warlords with understandable if irritating mutual rivalries, not drug dealing pederasts.

So if you like or can tolerate a war movie that very rarely looks into motivations, politics, or morals beyond "Those SOB's got Charley! And I'm gonna get them!!!" this was a passable if not always enjoyable movie. 

Army Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth in full he-man mode) is a disciplined and dedicated officer who has never killed anyone. He's no pacifist. He just hasn't had the opportunity yet. In fact he's thinking about leaving the Army and/or finishing out his time as a stateside trainer and staff officer. But then 9/11 happens.  Mitch wants in bad. But his commanding officer Lt Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggles) isn't sure that Mitch has what it takes or that this war will be any place for a rookie. He's also po'd about Mitch's possible departure plans. But Mitch's second in command Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) who is much older than Mitch and commands more respect from the brass, tears up his retirement papers on the condition that he be allowed to accompany Mitch and the rest of the team into Afghanistan. Bowers takes them to Afghanistan where Mitch has a semi-confrontation with the irritable and demanding Special Forces Commander, Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner). However, Mulholland appreciates Mitch's craftiness and intelligence. He's more impressed that Mitch will stand up for himself. And with that Mitch has got the job. 

Mitch is ordered to embed his team with Northern Alliance commander General Dostum (Navid Negahban). Working with the Air Force and General Dostum, Mitch will help to destroy Taliban and Al Quaeda heavy military equipment, machinery and supplies while General Dostum takes strategic cities. 

Mitch doesn't know if he can trust General Dostum to keep them alive or use American firepower only against Taliban. Dostum immediately deduces that Mitch is a well, virgin when it comes to war. Dostum isn't thrilled to be taking advice from someone he considers an unblooded young boy and a naive one at that. Dostum doesn't think Americans know enough about his country. 

This was a competent, if not too bloody film. It may be that after Saving Private Ryan and well any Mel Gibson or Quentin Tarantino movie, it's more difficult for filmic gore to shock me. But that given I honestly didn't feel grossed out or turned off by this film. Obviously people get shot and die, but the film never lingers on that. Given American history and the fact that the Special Forces soldiers must ride horses, this has a very strong Western feel. 

Mullah Razzan (Numan Acar) is a suitable bad guy, who is always helpfully clad in all black and prone to doing things like executing mothers who have dared to teach their daughters to read and write.  An important movie theme is examining how men grow and win the respect of other men. The dialog was at times painfully pedestrian but I don't think you watch films like this for the dialog. This movie did make me interested in learning more about the real soldiers upon which it was based as well as reading fictional Afghanistan adventure stories written by people like Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Other actors and actresses included but were not limited to Michael Pena, Elsa Pataky, Trevante Rhodes, and Thad Luckinbill.

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