12 Strong is a conundrum of a film. For what is presented on the screen, it accomplishes what is expected from a film about military combat. After setting the scene by introducing major characters and the nature and complexity of the conflict, there follows adrenalin-inducing, sensory assaulting sights, and sounds that seem to put the viewer in the combat zone. The film’s significance is enhanced by the fact that the film is based on a true story that until recently was known only vaguely by the public.
12 Strong is depicts the first response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks. The film tells or reminds viewers that only 2 months following the infamous terror attack, the United States struck back against those who planned, protected or condoned the strike that changed this nation. On the tip of the spear that struck into the heart of Afghanistan and the Taliban who had terrorized and murdered Afghans, as well as provided protection for al-Qaeda terrorists, were the Green Berets of the United States Army.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Capt. Mitch Nelson, leader of the elite, 12 man Special Forces unit and Michael Shannon as Warrant Officer and Hal Spencer. Now declassified, the story of the mission is one of extreme bravery on the part of every member of the unit as well as the other units who vied to be the first American soldiers to enter the Taliban controlled area of Afghanistan. The mission before the unit was to be dropped into the remote mountains of Afghanistan, join up with members of the Northern Alliance of Afghans fighting against the Taliban and assist them by calling in airstrikes against Taliban forces. Due to the lack planning time and the limited intelligence from the region, the unit was sent on the mission blind, knowing very little details about who they were joining up with or how the mission would be conducted. One such element was that they would be the first American Servicemen in 80 years to ride horses into combat.
Shot in New Mexico, the film offers a hint at the rugged terrain, brutal weather conditions, and isolation of the team. The film also offers a glimpse into the initial challenges of serving with the Northern Alliance, which seemed at times to be an alliance in name only. It is here where the film’s action orientation fell short in conveying perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the actual mission.
The film would have benefitted from detailing and presenting more of the relationships established between the unit and their allied Afghan forces. After the screening I attended, there was a Q&A with the men Hemsworth’s and Shannon’s characters were based on, Captain, now Major Mark Nutsch and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington. While covered in the film, the full story of the relationship between the members of the unit and the leaders and members of the Alliance group was stirring and added much to the film’s impact. Also, the cultural and political differences that Nutsch, Pennington, and all members of the team had to address and overcome were as vital to the success as any of the weaponry and tactics brought to the mission. As dauntingly impossible as the scope of the mission was, and as dangerous as the combat was as depicted, more details given to these relational and cultural requirements and accomplishments, at the expense of some of the combat sequences, would have reflected better the true and amazingly successful outcome of the mission.
In the Q&A Nutsch and Pennington talked about how they hoped the film conveyed the spirit and dedication of the Green Berets. This dedication includes care and concern not only for each other, or even American citizens, but also those with whom they fought and the Afghan people who were, and continue to be terrorized by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations in the country.
In addition to hearing from Major Nutsch and Chief Warrant Officer Pennington during the Q&A, I was also able to speak to them by phone. In our conversation, they discussed many of the elements they would address at the screening. Part of our discussion was the make-up and spirit of the unit. Given Special Forces units are smaller and stay together longer, the members grow to know each other better. The age of the members also is older so 10 of the 12 were married and had families. The families also grow close and care for one another. Hearing the two Green Berets describe the closeness and reliance members of the unit, and the extended unit of the families, had for one another, I thought of the reliance and care members of faith communities offer, or are called to one another, and others.
At their best, faith communities are devoted to one another and care for each other, at times more than they care for themselves. Members of faith communities draw strength from one another, teach and when necessary offer accountability to one another. Another commonality between armed forces units and faith communities is the devotion to the mission. Once given an assignment, the successful completion of the mission becomes the primary if not singular focus for members of a military unit or squad. Such should be the case for faith communities. In units, there is neither room nor patience for thoughts, opinions, habits or other things that distract from completing the mission as assigned. Christian faith communities would do better to follow this example and put the mission of loving and serving Christ by making disciples, above all things.
12 Strong is in wide release and is rated R for violence and language