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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



12 Strong, review: Lucky by the Dozen

12 Strong, review: Lucky by the Dozen

You are about to watch the declassified true story of the first American soldiers sent into Afghanistan after 9/11. They were called the Army Green Berets Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA 595) and consisted of just twelve. On the battleground in Afghanistan, they were outnumbered 40 to 1. But they won their battle, and all of them returned, largely unscarred. Now that is what I would call being lucky. They were heroes, nevertheless, but since the operation as classified, they were never honoured. Years later, declassified documents first led to a book, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan (Doug Stanton, 2010), and in 2018, we have the film version. Largely uni-linear, the film fails to entrance you, though there is spectacle, fire-power, smoke and dust galore.

12 Strong is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when an elite U.S. Special Forces unit, led by their Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first of U.S. soldiers sent into Afghanistan, for an extremely dangerous mission, in response to the attacks. It is feared that the 9/11 attacks were only the beginning, and unless some retaliatory steps are taken, more attacks might follow. After a CIA reconnaissance of the terrain, the team is air-dropped into the remote, rugged landscape of northern Afghanistan, where they must convince General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), a local warlord, to join forces with them, in fighting their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghan horse soldiers. Only Nelson knows horse-riding, since he grew up on a ranch.

Despite forming an uneasy bond and growing respect, the new allies face overwhelming odds: vastly outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners. Luckily, they have the full support of Dostum, who wants to settle scores with fanatic Taliban leader Razzan (Said Taghmaoui), who had killed his whole family. In order to reach the major Taliban stronghold of Mazaar-e-Shareef, they must first take the hamlet of Bescham (Beshkam). Air support is available from American air bases in neighbouring countries, and guided B-52 bombings help pave their way.

The two writers who worked on the screenplay would have had solid material from the book, which is not likely to contain much fiction. Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs-Oscar, Red Dragon, The Juror) and Peter Craig (The Town, The Hunger Games, Blood Father) have a solid story that will resonate deeply with Americans. One scene, in which Razzan kills a teacher in cold blood, for teaching girls above the age of eight, is the only connect the subject is likely to have with audiences in other countries. Of course, the 9/11 horror remains a strong factor for universal condemnation. As far as the ground war of the twelve is concerned, they have support of the Dostum militia, B52 bombers and transport helicopters, so the odds are not really the 40:1 that we find on paper. A highlight is the suicide bombing scene. Most of the witty and philosophical lines have been given to Dostum, and not Nelson, as one would have expected.

Danish Nicolai Fuglsig makes his directorial debut with a film that requires so much detailed attention to costumes and location (New Mexico doubles up for Afghanistan), not to mention land combat and aerial operations. If anything, his dozen slip into horseback combat mode with amazing ease. The near death injury to one of the team is a cliché, even if it really happened. For the major part, 12 Strong moves in one direction, towards its destination, and nothing earth-shaking really happens, till the final charge, almost a Don Quixote at the windmill. From the weather-beaten Spencer (Michael Shannon) to the novice Captain Hemsworth, performances are as battle-painted as can be. No strategic battles are fought, except the protagonists hiding behind rocks during gun-battles and in caves after hours.

Playing the 12 Strong U.S. Special Forces team are Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth, Michael Shannon (World Trade Center, Man of Steel, Nocturnal Animals, Shape of Water) described by Dostum as the man with the “Killer eyes”, Michael Peña (Million Dollar Baby, World Trade Center, American Hustle, The Martian, Ant-Man; brother is in the police, father was in the military), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), Geoff Stults (Only the Brave), Thad Luckinbill (Only the Brave), Austin Stowell (Bridge of Spies), Ben O’Toole (Hacksaw Ridge), Austin Hébert (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), Kenneth Miller (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), Kenny Sheard (13 Hours) and Jack Kesy (TV’s The Strain).

The ensemble cast also includes Navid Negahban (Richard the IIIrd, Atlas Shrugged Part I, American Sniper) who has the best lines in the film and shows great understanding of his part (he is supposed to know Dari, Uzbek, Tajik, Pashtu and Russian, and, as is revealed later, English too. Elsa Pataky (the Fast & Furious films; Spanish model: Elsa Lafuente Medianu) is cast as Mrs. Nelson in the film, being Mrs. Hemsworth in real-life). William Fichtner (Black Hawk Down, Armageddon) is the bald, menacing Colonel Mulholland, who feels that the gritty dozen cannot do this alone and that reinforcements are needed; and there’s Rob Riggle (The Hangover) as Lt. Col. Bowers.

Given the canvas and the cast, Nicolai Fuglsig has not been able to make translate the theme into 129 minutes of thrill-a-minute knock-out stuff. An installation is in place at the World Trade Center site, in honouring the 12 Strong. When t comes to the film, they needed something stronger.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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