Three of the problems with 12 Strong are location, location, and location, and not just because the film was shot in New Mexico and California. The director, Nicolai Fuglsig, has no feel for the mythic dread that the harsh, sublime, inhumanly scaled landscape is said to invoke in those who weren’t born to it. He’s lousy at giving us our bearings from scene to scene, and his battle scenes are nearly impossible to follow. This is another movie in which Afghans (Taliban and Northern Alliance alike) run eagerly into bullets while Americans dodge fusillade after fusillade.
But it’s the swerves into formula that cut the deepest. The Horse Soldiers’ story is unconventional, and the film — produced by uber-slickster Jerry Bruckheimer — has been shaped along conventional war-movie lines. Rhodes’s Sgt. First Class Ben Milo is dogged by an Afghan boy who first makes him nervous and then touches his heart. The demon Taliban commander has an idiotically melodramatic comeuppance that’s worthy of a Grade-Z Stallone movie. The worst part is when Nelson — who has never seen combat — must prove to General Dostun that he can kill with his heart and not his head and so be a warrior instead of a mere soldier. So we wait for the scene in which Nelson blows away some anonymous black-clad Taliban baddie and gets the manly nod from his barbaric mentor. Now he is a real man!
What stinks about the dopey, red-meat conceit is that this is the wrong context. Stanton in his book makes the case that the Horse Soldiers’ triumph was about more than saving your buddies and blowing away bad guys. He says, “It was a template for the way the present war — and future ones — should be fought. Instead of large-scale occupations, we should rely on small units of Special Forces who have proved it’s infinitely more effective to work with a country’s soldiers and citizens at eye level.”
It’s too bad the movie didn’t find room for a major character in Stanton’s account: John Walker Lindh, the scion of a well-off Northern California family who fought with the Taliban before his ignominious capture. But it’s the final sin of omission that’s unforgivable. The closing crawl sticks to celebratory happy talk. Those who’ve read Horse Soldiers know that several of the heroic Americans who survived the necessary, carefully orchestrated invasion of Afghanistan would die in the unnecessary, criminally bungled occupation of Iraq, courtesy such men as Donald Rumsfeld — presented in 12 Strong in a favorable context. A true memorial to the Horse Soldiers would show not just their triumph, but the larger tragedy of successful templates arrogantly discarded and all those lessons unlearned.