The Buzz

'12 Strong' Isn't the Afghan War Movie We Deserve, but It's the One We Want

Long ago — before the War on Terror devolved into a game of whack-a-mole; before MRAPs, and IEDs, and ROEs, and PTSD, all that other mundane stuff —  a small group of Green Berets rode into battle against America’s enemies in the most glorious way possible: on horseback. The year was 2001. The commandos, a 12-man team codenamed Operational Detachment Alpha 595, were the first U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. For weeks, they galloped alongside a faction of the Northern Alliance and beat the britches off a much larger Taliban force. It was an extraordinary display of unconventional warfare. By mid-November, the Taliban had abandoned Kabul, and Osama Bin Laden was hightailing it to Tora Bora. Were the War on Terror a blockbuster Hollywood movie, the credits would probably start rolling right about there.

That movie debuts on Jan. 19. Starring Chris Hemsworth as Capt. Mitch Nelson, the leader of ODA 595, and Michael Shannon as his steely-eyed second-in-command, 12 Strong is being touted as “the declassified true story of the horse soldiers.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration. ODA 595’s mission in Afghanistan stopped being a secret on Nov. 16 2001, when then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld showed reporters a photograph of a bearded commando on a horse and explained that the man was one of the Green Berets directing air strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in northern Afghanistan. The soldiers’ tale was also told in Doug Stanton’s 2009 nonfiction book, Horse Soldiers, upon which the film is based — hence “true story.”

But did everything depicted in 12 Strong happen in real life? No, of course not. It’s a Hollywood film. (“This is a fictional portrayal — don’t lose sight of that,” the real-life “Nelson,” Mark Nutsch, told the Tampa Bay Times.) But more than that, it’s a Hollywood film about U.S. special operations.

As far as Hollywood is concerned, there are two versions of the War on Terror. One is a hopeless quagmire that has left an entire generation of military veterans psychologically traumatized. The other is a gallant romp fought by elite commandos. Moviegoers much prefer the latter. In terms of box office success, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, and Lone Survivor — all heavily dramatized films exalting the awesomeness of Navy SEALs — top the list of movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by a very wide margin. Even Act of Valor, a film about Navy SEALs (played by actual Navy SEALs) that boasts a stunningly cruddy “25% fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, outearned Kathryn Bigelow’s similarly budgeted The Hurt Locker — which won six Oscars, including for Best Picture — by more than $30 million. The numbers say it all: Critics like films that make us feel conflicted about our nation’s current wars; most people who pay to see films, however, don’t.

Epic gun battles; rock-hard muscles slathered in grease and human blood; explosions that send guys somersaulting like rag dolls through the air; a clear objective; an enemy that stands up and fights like a man; a grand finale: That’s what the people want. Aside from a handful of scandals and a few exhilarating moments that seemed pivotal at the time, but ultimately did little or nothing to move the ball forward, the War on Terror has been a bit of a snoozefest. 17 years on, all of the lives and dollars we’ve poured into Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t paid off the way they were supposed to. There’s been no “raising the flag on Iwo Jima” moment. No sooner had Bin Laden’s bullet-ridden corpse been consumed by the fishes than the Islamic State emerged. Iraq is still not a beacon of democracy, and the Taliban is thriving. But if you thought Hollywood couldn’t manage to squeeze at least one more Saving Private Ryan out of this quizzical little war, you’re clearly unfamiliar with the work of Jerry Bruckheimer.What do Top Gun, Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, all have common? Well, for one thing, they all star Hollywood hunks: Tom Cruise (Sexiest Man Alive 1990), Ben Affleck (Sexiest Man Alive 2002), Josh Hartnett (just a really handsome guy). They’re also all big-budget patriotic American war dramas produced by Bruckheimer. The famed producer’s latest project is cut from similar cloth. As 12 Strong’s Nelson, Hemsworth (Sexiest Man Alive 2014) does a fine job channeling his inner Thor to give audiences the sort of mythical, all-American pipe-hitter they love to see vanquishing terrorists on the filmic battlefield. And while not a single helmet makes an appearance in this film, the tactics are sound. A cadre of former and currently serving U.S. special operators — including Nutsch, who is retired — were involved in the production to ensure it passes the bullshit test in that regard, at least.   

“From a technical standpoint, we had a checklist of things we wanted to make sure we did and didn’t do, especially the things that are telltale signs that it isn’t authentic, or that the military community would roll their eyes at,” Hemsworth told Task & Purpose in a recent phone interview. “Also, just working with these guys and getting a real sense of the type of person it takes to be in the military — to put yourself in harm’s way for the safety of other. It was inspiring and hugely motivating to get this story right and do the story justice.”