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BGN Film Review: ’12 Strong’

BGN Film Review: ’12 Strong’

12 Strong

War films, in this modern era of America cinema, tend to be stomach-churning, patriotic puff pieces. Films like American Sniper and Lone Survivor depict war as a clear and decisive good vs evil situation. White American soldiers invade a non-descript desert country and do horrible things in the name of vengeance, freedom, and manifest destiny.

12 Strong avoids these foibles. Centering instead not on the black and white, good and evil story structure that has done consistently well at the box office, but the partnership between a citizen militia and a group of veterans who believe they can make a difference. Based on the book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U. S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong tells the story of the first twelve men to enter Afghanistan after 9/11. They worked in tandem with a local Northern Army led by General Dostum.

12 Strong

American civilians are not familiar with war. We know the terror of mass gun violence and we endure when terrorists try to strike us down. But war is not a horrible day. It is many days of fear sleeping on the front doorstep. War destroys homes, ends childhoods, and is inescapable. This is something Dostum knows well. He’s fought off the Taliban for over a decade, forced to watch as they invaded his community and then the surrounding communities.

In one horrendous scene, viewers watch as three educated little girls are forced to answer test questions given by the Taliban, like how to spell giraffe or multiplication problems. As they wail in fear and confusion, their father pleads for his wife’s life. When the girls answer correctly they effectively condemn their mother to death.

What 12 Strong does best is bring home the terror of the Taliban. The Afghani people are depicted as intelligent and working to reclaim their home. The humanity and dignity given to the survivors of the Taliban are so refreshing and needed.

In his feature film debut, Nicolai Fuglsig weaves an intimate portrait of men fighting to remove an evil from the world. Dostum is in an unfathomable position, remarking early on that Afghanistan is a country that has been invaded multiple times. Choosing who to trust is a literal life and death decision for his people. The filmmaker made his career as a photojournalist in war-torn countries, and that innate understanding of the landscape of conflict is evident throughout the film.

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12 Strong

The American soldiers work with Dostum to take out key Taliban hideouts in the mountains, with a limited amount of time to complete their mission before winter arrives and the snow makes travel impossible. One critique of the film is that each of these campaigns feels cinematically similar. A visual differentiation, either in-camera or in the design of the communities could have helped build the drama.

Another choice the director made was to color-blind cast the film. Based on a true story, all of the original horse soldiers were white. Michael Peña and Trevante Rhodes were both brought in to portray some of these heroes. Peña, as always, gives a heartfelt performance as Sgt First Class Sam Diller, who conducts a solo mission to help cut off the Taliban’s weapons supply. There’s no food or water along the road. At one point, Diller has to negotiate with a farmer for a sheep to eat, and winds up paying several hundred dollars.

Rhodes plays Sgt First Class Ben Milo. Milo has a difficult job. Dostum has assigned each of the men a bodyguard, and they know that if one American dies, the blame will land in their lap. A young boy assigned to Milo bonds with him and, soon, Milo is playing bodyguard. Their relationship becomes the heart of the story and, though it’s a little cheesy and predictable, both actors perform to their strengths.

12 Strong

When I spoke to Rhodes about the decision to color-blind cast he said that it did not affect his performance as Milo, explaining that, “It pushes forward the idea of the film.” His point is that the content of character was more important than the body it was housed in. I must admit, it was nice to see a full spectrum of American heroes, even if some might interpret it as revisionist history.

Other standouts include Chris Hemsworth as Captain Mitch Nelson. A virgin to war but trusted by his crew, Nelson is a steadfast believer in his team. Hemsworth gives a solid performance, but still isn’t able to surpass his work as Thor.

The best performance of the film is Navid Negahban. In Dostum, now Vice President of Afghanistan, Negahban balances a warlord, grieving father, passionate patriot well. Whatever your thoughts on Dostum, Negahban has crafted an extraordinary portrait of a man in peril.

12 Strong is out in theaters on January 19.

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