If you’re going to make a film based on a true life tale of military heroism, then you’d better cram in as many pointless explosions as possible and hire Thor, General Zod, and Ant-Man’s best friend to headline. That’s the sort of thinking that goes through the head of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Pirates Of The Caribbean), a guy whose cocaine-induced fever dreams fuelled the action movie industry in the 80s and 90s, and who is a Hollywood man-child who will never grow up. With 12 Strong, he’s trying to make a classy war picture, but he just can’t help himself. So it feels more like a Michael Bay (a filmmaker who exists because Bruckheimer made it so) fantasy than anything resembling reality. It’s a trashy movie made by trashy people and the saddest part is that it’ll make all its money from actual war veterans and their families. That’s how propaganda works, Bruckheimer style.
The story to 12 Strong is about the first major military operation and victory of the never-ending war in Afghanistan. With 9/11 still fresh in everyone’s minds, the military sent a covert team of 12 G.I. Joes to meet up with an Afghan rebel general and take out the first Taliban warlord. The terrain was unfamiliar, the local soldiers untrained men and children. The US soldiers had never seen combat before, but were legends on the training grounds, and as no one in the military had ever fought like this before, the reasoning went, it might as well be them. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, and a bunch of unrecognizable LA tough guy actor types star as the soldiers. Navid Negahban plays the local amateur general who sends them into battle on horseback against tanks and rocket launchers. The real story was crazy enough, but this blockbuster retelling doubles down on the macho fantasy to make something so insane that it’s almost fun. The key word is “almost.”
12 Strong falls into a new subgenre of American war movies that kicked off with the obscenely successful Clint Eastwood picture American Sniper. Essentially the mucho dolares made on that movie created a new market of blockbuster propaganda pictures that along with Call Of Duty serve as the new school version of army recruitment videos. These movies make serving in the military feel like a way to live out your childhood Rambo fantasies. Morality is never questioned. Americans are always right. The brown people are always wrong. Terrifying combat is fetishized through stylized action movie fantasy. It would be easy to laugh these movies off if they didn’t work so well for so many people.
This one is slightly better than previous entries in the genre like American Sniper, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, and Lone Survivor. By having the American soldiers team up with a gang of Afghan rebels, the movie actually makes an attempt to humanize the non-American characters. Sadly, that’s a new development. Admittedly 12 Strong does so through vaguely offensive means that turn the Afghan rebels into magical folk heroes who rant about having the hearts of warriors and need to learn how to be true war heroes from the Americans. That’s still condescending, but, sadly, condescension is a big step forward in this ra-ra Americana genre that exists primarily to serve as an act of cinematic flag waving and to blow stuff up real good.
Admittedly, with Jerry Bruckheimer in charge and a no-name first-time director (Nicolai Fuglsig) at his bidding, the action is at least pretty good. Everything is stylized to the extreme. Every moment of violence is shot from as many angles as possible and edited like a music video. Drone cameras swoop over everything for scale. Every explosion is at least twice as big as it should be and every gun has unlimited rounds of ammunition, which all looks good on the big screen and gets the blood pumping. That’s good in genre terms, even if it’s undeniably manipulative and in bad taste in terms of how it represents the actual men who fought and died in the actual story.
Sadly, the characterization doesn’t really do those men justice either. No one really feels like a fully developed human being. They all feel like action heroes and are played by larger than life actors to hammer home that bizarre vision. Chris Hemsworth is robbed of all the charisma that he just showed off in Thor Ragnarok, pouting and glowering his way through a two-dimensional role while struggling to get his mouth around an American accent that he never quite masters. The great Michael Shannon gives the first lazy and detached performance of his career. It’s a shame, but at the same time he likely clocked the movie as crap from the moment he signed on and only stuck around for a well-deserved paycheck. Only Michael Pena gets to show any of his skill and charm, yet even he is wasted by disappearing for the bulk of 12 Strong when the action kicks off. The saddest part is seeing a photo of the actual soldiers at the end. While I’m sure they were flattered to all be played by pretty boy Hollywood types, the contrast between their actual appearance and Bruckheimer’s movie star fantasy is laughable.
So what we have in 12 Strong is a movie that works perfectly well as a braindead action flick, yet feels offensive for that very reason, since it trivializes the actual struggles and triumphs of being a soldier in order to sell more popcorn. It’s kind of amazing that this new strain of Hollywood war propaganda continues to succeed at all. Yet given how dependent the US economy is on keeping their war machine alive, it kind of makes sense. Years from now, audiences will look back on these trashy war blockbusters and giggle at the excesses, just as we do now with the old WW2 propaganda pictures that made Hollywood truckloads of cash decades ago. For now, anyone capable of thinking while things explode in a movie theatre just has to shake their head and wait for everyone else to catch up.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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