MOVIE REVIEW: 12 Strong

12 STRONG (2018)

GOING IN

12 Strong is a film based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers, that dramatizes the true story of a U.S. Special Forces team who deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. They were some of the first American military to engage in unconventional warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces. As the title of the book and all of the film’s marketing shows, this group in particular used horses as part of their fight against enemy forces. Chris Hemsworth leads an interesting casts that includes Michael Shannon (who I don’t see as a special forces soldier), Taylor Sheridan (in his first acting gig since becoming a hot new writer/director), Trevante Rhodes (coming off an incredible performance in Moonlight), Michael Peña (most likely for some comedic levity), William Fichtner, and more. The film is directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, a former war photojournalist making his directorial debut, which means it should at least look good. I also expect the film to be rousing and patriotic, and as someone who was serving in the military and stationed in the Middle East at the time of the attacks, it will probably be quite affecting regardless of quality.

2 Hours and 10 Minutes Later.

COMING OUT

9/11 is one of those days that most everyone can remember in vivid detail. Each year on Patriot Day, it is common to hear the question “Where were you when…?” whispered around the office as co-workers somberly reflect on the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks and share their stories, additionally observing a moment of silence at 8:46 am. It is nearly impossible to not feel those emotions of grief and sadness again, as we collectively remember those who lost their lives because of hate. And so, early in 12 Strong when footage of the crashes is shown, I’ll freely admit to immediately becoming emotionally invested. Then we are introduced to some of the soldiers that make up the team at the center of this story, and we watch as they struggle with feelings of anger and rage. They want payback, and they want it now. They know that it means leaving their loved ones, but these are men of ideals and they must fight. Again, emotion washed over me as I remembered my time in the Middle East, learning of the attacks and then sitting in my off-base apartment armed and watchful as demonstrations took place at a local mosque across the street. I, too, wanted payback. 12 Strong begins by presenting us with this background and bringing us back to that moment that we realized safety on our own soil was no longer a guarantee. It is a powerful and evocative opening act.

At the heart of 12 Strong, as with most good war films, is brotherhood. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) leads a Special Forces team that includes many men older and with more combat experience than himself. He is fiery and determined, though, and his natural leadership has them gladly follow him into a dangerous mission as the United States seeks to work with a local Afghan warlord to take a key city back from Taliban. The one thing that will quickly sink any war film for me is an inaccurate portrayal of military life. Thankfully, the team is shown in way that is very reminiscent of my own experience, effectively capturing the camaraderie that exists between these men who must rely on each other for their very lives. Also accurately shown is the way in which Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), the grizzled vet, supports and provides advice for Nelson, understanding the role in leadership that he has and helping the young officer to make wise choices. The relationship between the entire team is a joy to see, but there is a special bond between Nelson and Spencer – a strong mutual respect. At one moment as the men are about to embark on their mission, Spencer muses “It’s a hell of a thing we do. How do you love your family and leave them to go to war?” Honor, of course is partially the answer, but brotherhood sure makes it easier.

Once in the mountains of Afghanistan, Nelson and the team meet up with General Dostum (Navid Negahban) who serves as a guide and provides his army to help the Americans regain control of the city for them. Negahban’s performance is wonderful and was the surprise of the film, outshining the solid work by Hemsworth, Shannon, Peña, and others. Dostum and Nelson must learn to work together in what starts out as a tenuous relationship but ultimately provides a great example of what it means to grow to trust one another. What 12 Strong does differently than so many films set in this era is use this relationship to remind us of the Aghani people who were victims of al-Quaida and the Taliban themselves. General Dotsum is a truly great man who led his people in opposition of the Taliban and went on to become Vice President of the country in 2014. Here we see why, as he mentors Captain Nelson, teaching him the difference between a soldier and a warrior, and forming a bond that has grown into a lifelong friendship between the two men. This relationship as depicted in the film was probably my favorite aspect, and amidst the chaos of war it provided some dramatic character depth and an arc of growth for Captain Nelson.

The one thing that I dislike most about 12 Strong is the choice to include a villain. Around the beginning of the second act we are introduced to the Taliban leader who has taken control of the city and are shown examples of the horrific way in which his group operates. I did not feel this was necessary because we have enough real-life motivation to root for our heroes already. His addition was a distraction somewhat during the action and removing him might have trimmed off 10 minutes or so and made the film feel a little tighter. His inclusion doesn’t sink the film by any means, he just felt a little out of place.

Technically, the film has many strong qualities, chief among them the sound design. Gunfire and explosions sound crisp, real, and terrifyingly close. Cinematography is also very good, which is not surprising given the director’s photographic background. The film is full of beautifully framed shots, the likes of which you would see in a magazine from a wartime photojournalist like Fuglsig, but there is also an inconsistency to this that shows his lack of directing experience. Mostly the film looks and sounds great, with a near non-stop pounding score escalating our heartbeats in rhythm with the tension and action playing out on screen. It’s also a relief to see that the horses are not used as a gimmick at all, but their place in the story feels genuine and realistic (with the exception of one slightly unbelievable, but awesome, action scene).

VERDICT

12 Strong is a tight, tense thriller that retells an incredible story in American war history. It focuses as much on the diplomacy needed between the U.S. and Afghanistan as it does the incredible battles with Taliban fighters to show a well-rounded picture of how the two nations worked together to accomplish their mutual goal. This is not a propaganda film, but it does evoke powerful emotions related to memories of a terrible tragedy, and especially so for those who left their own loved ones to take up the fight themselves. Anchored by strong acting performances across the ensemble cast and without relying on manipulative fake motivational speeches, 12 Strong shows how loyalty works in a military brotherhood, and how powerful it can be. Many elements of the film may feel somewhat generic, but the emotional resonance can’t be ignored, and make this one definitely worth seeing.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Shape of Water

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)


GOING IN

Guillermo del Toro makes gorgeous films. Whether it’s horror, comic book characters, live-action cartoon, or fantasy, the visual aspect of his movies is always a treat. Now he returns with his first straight fantasy since the much beloved Pan’s Labyrinth. Expectations are (understandably) very high for this story of a mute worker in a secret government lab who discovers what appears to be a merman, or the creature from the black lagoon. Set during the Cold War era, it won’t be surprising at all if someone tries to use this creature as a weapon. The film’s story is the kind of fantastical adventure that del Toro could do wonders with, and I expect a twist or two as well.


COMING OUT

Honestly, there is much to like about del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Sally Hawkins turns in an incredible, emotionally-driven silent performance as the mute protagonist Elisa Esposito. Her acting is noteworthy because so much of it requires facial expression and body language to convey nuanced changes in feeling. She is often acting opposite a creature that cannot communicate with her verbally and this results in an intriguing relationship as she sorts out ways to connect with him. It is the wide range of emotions she conveys that actually makes her stand out the most, though. At times tender and caring, other times sad and longing, and ultimately strong  and determined. Also turning in a great performance is Michael Shannon as the film’s antagonist, a cruel and abusive Colonel that discovered the creature (which he coldly refers to as an “asset”) and along with his superiors wants to dissect and study it for possible scientific advancement in space travel technology. Shannon owns this role of a villain and becomes easy to hate. It’s a top-notch portrayal of evil and there isn’t much complexity to his character – whether that’s for better or worse will depend on your taste.

Dan Lausten’s cinematography accents its mostly shadowy colors with moments of vivid color to highlight emotion. The whole film has a noir feel to it without ever being traditionally black and white. Since the majority of the story takes places inside of a bunker or apartment, there isn’t much sunlight in the picture, but it fits this dark fairy tale’s tone perfectly and at least gives the viewer something pretty to look at despite the film’s surprisingly violent content throughout. The creature design is unsurprisingly fantastic. He, of course, has some secrets to reveal and discovering what those were was interesting and eventually vital to the plot.

Where The Shape of Water doesn’t work is in the direction it takes with the relationship between Elisa and the creature. One of the first scenes we see is a fully exposed Hawkins pleasuring herself in the bathtub and that sets the tone for what is to come. Elisa is a woman who has sexual desires and conveying that is not a bad thing. However, del Toro’s method feels unnecessary and sets the tone for a disturbingly sexualized human/creature relationship. If you weren’t certain before, this is a very adult fairy tale, and this one underlying plot point can really derail the entire film for those who are turned off by it. Imagine for a moment if Beauty and the Beast’s love story included him remaining a Beast and the viewer was shown the two having a sexual relationship. What takes place in The Shape of Water is akin to that, minus a believable romance. Ultimately, the film does give the relationship some meaningful touches, with sacrifice and trust coming into play, but the overall path of it can be so off-putting that enjoying the film becomes impossible.

VERDICT

It’s too bad when a film is ruined by one particular choice. There was so much potential here for this to be an intriguing new dark fairy tale, but del Toro’s choice to sexualize a relationship that didn’t need it makes this a hard film to recommend to all viewers. The violence is more frequent than expected and also quite brutal at times, and there is no real hope of redemption for the villains. Despite a gorgeous aesthetic and score, these story elements made it difficult for me to enjoy and I’ll be a lot less likely to get excited about another del Toro adult fairy tale in the future because of it.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.