The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


12 Strong

On the spectrum of war movies, you have something like Saving Private Ryan at the high end and Act of Valor at the low end. The best provide a nerve-rattling you-are-there immediacy. The worst are designed to do nothing other than evoke a knee-jerk jingoistic reaction. 12 Strong falls somewhere in the middle. This is a shallow movie based on a fascinating piece of U.S. military history. It isn't the worst war picture ever made. The real-life heroes deserve better, though.

In the days after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, an elite Special Forces unit is selected to be the first into Afghanistan. Led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), their mission is to go through nearly uncrossable terrain to convince General Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to cooperate with them in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Michael Shannon and Michael Pena play two of the members of Nelson's team.

A couple things are especially notable about this true story. First, because of the terrain and Dostum's limited supplies, the soldiers fought parts of the battle on horseback, leading them to later be dubbed the “Horse Soldiers.” Second, they accomplished in three weeks what military experts predicted would take two years. Needless to say, that's pretty amazing. Any movie telling that story is going to generate a certain amount of interest, simply because the real event is inherently compelling.

That simply isn't enough. There has to be more depth. 12 Strong takes this story and tells it through cliches and half-baked characterization. The screenwriting is sloppy. Ted Tally and Peter Craig have written a script where all the people are one-dimensional. Nelson, for instance, is a stereotypical tough guy. We never see him afraid or weak. He perpetually radiates confidence. From the start, he talks in statements of macho posturing. In other words, we don't see him as a real person, but rather as an Action Movie Hero. He could just as easily be a renegade cop avenging the murder of his partner.

The rest of Nelson's men have personalities only to the degree with which the actors provide them. Michael Shannon is always interesting to watch. He does what he can with Hal Spencer, the man he portrays, yet there isn't much there for him to work with. Most of the others are as generic as white bread. Same goes for the dialogue. Even the hackneyed ”Some of us might not make it out alive!” line is accounted for.

As for the plot, it advances according to formula. There is a requisite scene of Nelson's WWBH (Worried Wife Back Home) – one of the dullest of cinematic cliches, perfect for when you want to have at least one female character but don't want to take the time to develop her. Each new section of the team's mission, meanwhile, is presented on a surface level, with no purpose other than to move 12 Strong to the next obligatory combat sequence. Specific details, which would theoretically be the most riveting part of this true story, are glossed over, so that it's not always clear what's happening or why.

Even the action scenes, which are the movie's primary concern, are staged just like those in a dozen other war movies from the last twenty years. It's a lot of random chaos, with the emphasis put on being cinematically “exciting” rather than authentic to what the Horse Soldiers endured. They provide little palpable sense of the danger these men faced.

In the end, the “based on a true story” aspect is really just an angle. 12 Strong is far more concerned with being a kick-ass action movie than with being a celebration of real-life heroes. That would be okay if it was telling a fictional story. Or if it was a better film.

( out of four)

12 Strong is rated R for war violence and language throughout. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

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