The music in “12 Strong” (subtitled “The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers”) acts in the same way that a laugh track acts on a sitcom. Laugh tracks relieve the audience of their responsibility to laugh; humor on a sitcom can be unfunny, unoriginal and unrelatable, but as long as there is the sound of a laughing crowd played behind it, the audience member still feels the catharsis of laughter. Music in “12 Strong” acts like this, but for drama; though nothing exciting or emotional is occurring on the screen, the soundtrack is filled with minor chords and thundering percussion that forcibly commands the viewers be moved and thrilled. Maybe it will be effective, or maybe this crutch is so commonly used that audiences are becoming aware of it. Maybe viewers will see it is as being as unoriginal, insipid and dull as everything else about this insulting movie. Maybe they’ll be blinded by the most blatantly pro-War on Terror piece of media not directly written by Dick Cheney.
We open on a montage recounting various acts of violence committed by al Qaeda. The segments are presented to us as if they are clipped from news reports, but seem suspiciously tailored to the narrative purpose, as if they’ve been recorded by some voiceover actor. We then meet Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), whose Perfect Home Life™ is disrupted as he helplessly watches the Twin Towers fall on TV. Mitch decides that he needs to go to Afghanistan to get the guys who did this. We’re meant to ignore that Mitch knows, seemingly before 1 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, that al Qaeda planned the attacks and that the Taliban are sheltering al Qaeda.
Mitch and his troops head into Afghanistan, where they rendezvous with warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and prepare to “take out the Taliban.” In some kind of modern “Lawrence of Arabia”, Mitch and his boys learn what real courage is from this exotic foreign warrior and ride horses into battle in scenes that made me nostalgic for the Riders of Rohan in “Lord of the Rings.” And here our real troubles begin.
For one, it is obvious that these horse soldiers can’t fight tanks, so much of the war is done by B-52 Stratofortresses flying six miles high. We have several scenes where bombs fall on bad guys in an apocalyptic display of American excellence. One American (played by Michael Shannon, somehow still brilliant in this drivel) observes that he can call in airstrikes, even with an injured back. This is deeply troubling. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians have died under American bombs since 2001; to celebrate the total war tactic of bombing is disgusting. I was reminded of last year’s coverage of the GBU-43/Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bombing of the Islamic State group (IS). Not once then and not once here does anyone stop to think: maybe it isn’t right to drop these weapons. Maybe risking and likely ending the lives of innocent people should factor into our decision-making when we go to war.
Here, the moral issue of bombing villages is solved by the characterization of Afghans. The Taliban, of course, are an almost comically over-the-top evil, personified by one man who kills a sobbing woman who attempted to educate girls. But it is in the treatment of even the American allies that “12 Strong” shows its jingoist colors – the allies don’t know how to take wrappers off of candy and they steal supplies dropped for our heroes. They are in need of American help here; imperialism is not oppression, but a liberation for these simple horse riders. It’s patronizing; America is a civilizing force, helping these warring tribes with their superior intellect and technology. If the movie was better made, I might grit my teeth and bear it, but “12 Strong” is tinted grey and lacks one character whose name I wanted to know. It is almost comically silly and nationalist but doesn’t quite reach that point, resulting in an ugly exercise in American propaganda.
Rating: 1.5 Stars
Featured Photo: Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson in this disappointing action movie. WARNER BRO.