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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Ode to the Horse Soldiers
by Frank Wilkins

It has been a while -- 60 years, in fact -- since American military forces have deployed a good old-fashioned 19th-century horseback cavalry charge as an effective battlefield tactic. But thatís exactly what happened in the days immediately following the 9/11 tragedy as an elite U.S. Special Forces unit invaded Afghanistan to exact revenge on those responsible for the heinous attack. And its depiction is used to great effect in 12 Strong, the telling of the declassified true story of the horse soldiers of Afghanistan.

There are hundreds of tales of courage and bravery to come out of our countryís involvement in what has officially become Americaís longest war. But it is the nearly unbelievable reality that a unit of American soldiers charged -- on horseback -- into combat against missile launchers and T-72 tanks that forms the hook of 12 Strong and is probably the only real reason the story needs to be told. It is a remarkably fascinating fact, and as told by first-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, maks an inspiring tale with patriotism in its heart and revenge in its soul. But more importantly, it does not fall into the trap of rah-rah jingoism that characterizes most war movies. The filmmakers have, for the most part, practiced restraint, and it is a better movie because they did. Thatís not to say 12 Strong doesnít have its moments of heart-pounding tension and fist-pumping action. It does. But because of Fuglsigís attention to detail and the adherence by screenwriters Ted Tally and Peter Craig to actual events, everything feels real.

The mission at the heart of 12 Strong was codenamed Task Force Dagger and was as much a diplomatic one as it was military. A crack unit of Green Berets was to link up with a local warlord of The Northern Alliance named Abdul Rashid Dostum with the intent of regaining control of the region and mounting a unified fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, mutual enemies to the U.S. and The Northern Alliance. Things are a bit more complicated, however, by the fact that The Northern Alliance is itself a fractured one with several of the factions hating only the Taliban more than one another.

Chris Hemsworth lays down his Thor hammer and grabs an M4 carbine as Army Captain Mitch Nelson, who will head up the mission along with a force of 11 others, including Sam Diller (Michael Pena), Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), and the weapons guy with a heart of gold, Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes), collectively known as ODA 595 (Operational Detachment Alphas). In other words, they are the alpha dogs, the tip of the spear tasked with neutralizing The Taliban and Al-Qaeda. These guys are itching to get in the fight, a sentiment highlighted by the fact that none is ordered to the task. They are all volunteers for a mission from which they are not guaranteed to return. What they didnít expect, however, was the roughness of the terrain which meant the only way through was on horseback. Something only one of them had experience with.

The specifics of the mission will be for the forces, accompanied by a ragtag band of Dostumís soldiers, to make their way from a drop zone in northern Afghanistan to Mazer-i-Sharif, a large city occupied by the Taliban, while directing U.S. and allied airstrikes on the enemy along the way. At seemingly nearly every turn our heroes face unfavorable odds, but it is no secret that Nelson turns a mission expected to take years into a route that pried the city from the Talibanís rule in mere weeks.

Though difficult to believe, the events that unfold are quite accurate as adapted from the acclaimed book called Horse Soldiers by author Doug Stanton. Though the script is a bit light on the characters and their backstories, we do spend a small amount of time with Nelsonís family before he ships off. One of the filmís strong suits is depicting the courage of those left behind, including Nelsonís wife (real-life spouse Elsa Pataky) and young daughter Maddy (Marie Wagenman). We get to not only see what itís like for the men to leave their wives and children, but also the effect it has on their families. Truly devastating.

12 Strong will never go down as a power player in the pantheon of great war movies. Nor will it even be remembered more than a few months beyond its home video release. But it is a solid entry in the genre and a fantastic ode to the real story behind the heroes who lived it.

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated ďRĒ for war violence and language throughout.)

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