12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers

Travel and accommodations were provided by Warner Bros. Pictures.

12 Strong, from Warner Bros. Pictures, will release on January 19, 2018. It is rated R for violence and language throughout.  

A clock sounds loudly. A military man and his wife hold each other, knowing they will be separated in the morning, unsure of the future. Both are awake, both unwilling to break the silence as their young child sleeps nearby. It’s a helluva thing we do, isn’t it? How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?

Military families can’t escape the fact that we’ve now been at war nearly 17 years. The conflict we expected to be over in months inexplicably continues on. We’ve spent years apart from our spouses due to Middle East deployments, and some of us, like me, are now sending our sons and daughters to fight the same war in the same places. So I approach a war movie set in the days after 9/11 with a certain amount of skepticism. After all, can Hollywood do this topic justice?

I screened the war drama 12 Strong with a group of military spouse bloggers recently in Hollywood. I’ll admit, my guard was up, as I don’t expect even-handed treatment of military-heavy stories these days. I waited for it, that inevitable politicization of our troops’ presence in Afghanistan, but was happily surprised when it never came. Instead, 12 Strong simply tells a story…a true one.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

About the Movie

12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth (“Thor” from the Avengers movies, in case you’re not up on pop culture) and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and is produced by Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media, and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

The movie tells the hitherto little known story of a U.S. Army Special Forces unit sent on a dangerous mission into Afghanistan mere days after 9/11. The now declassified mission, code-name “Task Force Dagger“, included joining forces with the loosely organized Northern Alliance to help take back certain provinces, as well as act as the tip of the spear in the initial fighting against Al Qaeda and the Taliban

Aside from the challenges of cultural differences and a sense of distrust on both sides, the Americans, with their state of the art technology and equipment, had to learn to navigate the treacherous mountains and desert landscape the same way the locals did: on horseback. Outnumbered by enemy fighters 5,000 to 1, the men were also in extreme danger due to the huge bounties placed on their lives by the Taliban.

Based on the novel Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong offers a realistic depiction of what the unit went through, the inner workings of military culture, and the effect on both Afghan civilians and the unit’s families back home. Note that there is strong language throughout, as well as violence. Trigger warnings include battlefield violence, repeated explosions and gun battles, and up-close scenes of civilian killings by the Taliban.

Who Is 12 Strong For?

During the press conference with filmmakers and cast members after the movie screening, all expressed their pride in relaying the story of true-life heroes that had been classified until recently. One key point noted repeatedly (and military spouses already know this!) is the manner in which military members tend to downplay their service or push aside thanks, rarely focusing on themselves, but on their team or country as a whole. This story needed to be shared with the rest of the country.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, on the decision to make the movie: “Remarkably enough, there have been very few films made about the Army’s Special Forces. They are known as ‘the quiet professionals’ because their missions are covert and, for obvious reasons, they rarely publicize their exploits.”

Actor and producer Thad Luckinbill commented on the need to “just be authentic and pay these guys the respect that they deserve and tell the story that should be told.”

One of the most fascinating threads throughout the movie is the forging of an uneasy partnership between Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) and Northern Alliance General Dostum (Navid Negahban). Initially eschewing interaction with Nelson due to his youth and the fact that he “doesn’t have killer’s eyes,” they come to trust each other and eventually work in tandem along with their teams. Hemsworth and Negahban convey the tension between the two men brilliantly, and Negahban had this to say: “This was the first film that truly shows what Afghans went through and how we united with them to achieve our goal.”

Hemsworth and Negahban

A good reminder for all Americans are the scenes portraying the oppressive lives the Afghan people were subjected to under Taliban rule. Commandeering whole villages, women in burkas with not even eyes showing, the stoning of a woman only for being caught in adultery, and the execution of a mother for daring to teach her daughters to read. It’s a gritty reminder of who our common enemy was–one that not only strove to kill Americans, but also attempted to force its archaic way of life on whole countries.

Military Family Scenes

Military families will relate to the goodbyes. The moments of shock...Is this really happening? A wife buried shoulders deep in her oven, scrubbing it out as if her life depends on it, as if it will make any sort of difference in what’s coming (Angry cleaning, I call it.). Questioning, sad children. We’ve all been there.

Families back home monitor the news, not wanting to look but more afraid to turn it off. The unexplained feeling of relief when you know your loved one is safe. (Though in my opinion, much more time should have been given to family homecoming scenes!)

Captain Mark Nutsch, Special Forces commander on the mission and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington, the real-life counterparts to the roles played by Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, were both on set to ensure accuracy in the movie’s portrayal.

Nutsch commented: “We’re humbled that a movie has been made about our team’s mission in that pivotal post 9/11 period. It also means a great deal to our families, who sacrifice so much, that what we accomplished is finally being brought more into public light. And I believe it will mean a lot to the Afghan people because it shows their service in that conflict.”

Should You Watch It?

My opinion is an unequivocal yes. It’s an important part of our country’s history and an amazing story of courage, brothers in arms, and the reasons we ended up in Afghanistan in the first place. It moves past politics and rhetoric to provide a picture of what our military members choose to go through willingly. And that is a story worth telling.

In the words of director Nicolai Fuglsig:

“This is a movie where you can rally around both the Americans and the Afghans because, together, they took an epic ride into the mouth of hell. If the U.S. Special Forces team didn’t work together with General Dostum and his militia, they would have had no chance against the tens of thousands of Taliban fighters. At its core, 12 Strong is not just a war movie; it’s a story about learning to respect the differences that separate us but also to embrace the qualities that unite us.


Connect with us on Facebook!