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Movie Review

It's called the "Graveyard of Empires," and for good reason. The dry, mountainous, untamed and untamable land known now as Afghanistan baffled Alexander the Great. It brought the British Empire to its knees at its Victorian peak. The Soviet Union sought to conquer Afghanistan; some say that Afghanistan brought down the Soviets instead.

Now another country wants a crack at Afghanistan—not to take it, but to free it.

It's the fall of 2001, and the wreckage of New York's World Trade Center is still smoldering. The terrorist network Al Qaeda takes credit for the attack. It's widely believed the group's leaders are operating in the wild, mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan, sheltered by the country's extremist Taliban regime.

Afghanistan is untamed and perhaps untamable, perhaps even within its own borders. Yes, The Taliban says it's in control, but a bevy of warlords disputes that claim. The country wavers between Islamic Sharia Law and utter lawlessness. And that offers a bit of an opening for the United States military, which is eager to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil.

"We'll be in this fight boys," says Capt. Mitch Nelson. "Mark my words."

Mitch, technically, shouldn't be in any fight. He recently accepted a desk job—a better, safer spot to care for his wife and kids. His Special Forces team was being reassigned. But when he watched the towers go down in New York, Mitch's plans changed. Soon, he and his men find a way to re-band and head to Afghanistan. Their assignment: to seek out and partner with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who fights the Taliban in Afghanistan's barren mountains.

Al Qaeda delivered a devastating blow to America on 9/11. Mitch and his men, a commander tells him, "will be the first ones to fight back."

But it won't be easy. These 12 men will face a fighting force of thousands, supported by tanks and rockets. Dostum's forces number only a few hundred. Tanks? Dostum has no tanks, only horses—hardly the sort of mounts made for success in modern warfare.

Then, of course, Mitch and his men will have to navigate the complicated minefield of alliances and rivalries that exist in Afghanistan: warlords who hate the Taliban and who hate each other nearly as much.

Graveyard of empires? Yes, Afghanistan has earned that title. But Mitch and his men have no ambition to overturn two thousand years of history. They merely want to do their jobs and kick the Taliban in the teeth, all the while praying that Afghanistan doesn't become their graveyard, too.

Positive Elements

12 Strong is based on an actual American military operation that has only recently been declassified. For those with a yen for heroic military personnel who selflessly and sacrificially perform their duties, this film has a lot to offer. (That, and lots of explosions.)

Mitch and his squadron know they're putting themselves at risk of serious harm, of course. That's an inescapable part of their job. But they believe that what they're doing will protect the homes and people they love. We hear repeatedly that taking the fight to Al Qaeda and the Taliban is the only way to prevent another tragic attack on U.S. soil.

We see some of the families they're leaving behind, which gives us a sense of the sacrifice made by their spouses and children, too. But not all families take news of the mission well: Hal Spencer, the team's Chief Warrant Officer, tells his son that he loves him before he goes. The boy, who's perhaps in his early teens, simply turns away without saying a word—a starkly realistic portrait of what can happen in some military families.

But most of the families accept the nature of the job, dealing with the endemic fear and loss as well as they can. Mitch's wife gives him an order: "I don't care how long you're gone. As long as you come back." Mitch makes her a promise: He will come back, and he vows to bring the rest of the men under his authority home, too. It's a tricky promise to make, given the circumstances, but it's meant sincerely.

Spiritual Content

Afghanistan's Taliban adheres to an extreme form of Islamic law, and we see evidence of that extremism in one town controlled by the organization: A black-clad man in a position of authority quizzes a handful of little girls about their level of education as females. A woman, possibly the girls' mother, kneels nearby. When he coaxes out the correct spelling of the word "giraffe" from one and deduces that another knows how to multiply, he executes the mother—despite her appeals to save her "in the name of God"—reminding the surrounding throng that no girl should be educated beyond the age of 8 as others shout, "God is great!" We also see other women in burqas.

Through Dostum, the film offers another view of faith. The Afghan warlord tells Mitch that while Mitch has many people over him, Dostum is governed only by God. He reminds Mitch that the Americans have good homes and lives to protect. For those in Afghanistan, however, their difficult lives make the Islamic afterlife look more attractive—which in turn makes them more willing to die to achieve it.

The American brass sends Mitch a variety of gifts to grease the wheels of partnership with any warlords they might encounter. When a CIA operative sees a bottle of vodka among the gifts, he quips, "That'll go over great in a Muslim country." (The religion forbids partaking of any alcoholic drinks.)

When Mitch's wife wants Mitch to promise her that he'll come back home safely, he initially refuses, saying that it's "bad luck."

Sexual Content

Sgt. Sam Diller wants to have sex with his wife before leaving for Afghanistan, making a crass suggestion about what he's got in mind. His wife, though, refuses. "Holding out is the only way I can guarantee you'll come back to me," she tells him.

A member of Mitch's team views a Taliban video of a woman being executed for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Violent Content

When Mitch and Dostum meet, Dostum initially refuses to talk with Mitch because, he says, Mitch lacks "killer eyes." The warlord can see at a glance that Mitch hasn't killed anyone. Mitch rectifies that many times before this movie is through.

We see plenty of violence and blood in this war movie. Countless people fall down dead, most of them shot. While many of the deaths are relatively bloodless, others come with an accompanying splash of blood. Some combatants are blown up by grenades or rockets.

One suicide bomber kills himself and several others with a massive explosion: We see what appear to be bloody body parts scattered around the blast zone. One man suffers a terrible injury, described as a "sucking chest wound." We see other injuries, too; one man frantically tries to revive another, his mouth stained in blood. We don't see much of the wound, but a soldier sticks his hand into the man's uniform and pulls it out, covered in blood. Explosions send horses and men flying. In the aftermath of a battle, we see bodies of both strewn everywhere. Explosions and gunfire riddle the film.

A woman is executed in a village square. Before she's killed, a man pulls off the burqa covering she wore on her head, revealing that she'd been cruelly beaten already; her face is bloody and bruised. Someone executes her with a bullet to the head—accompanied by a splash of blood—and her body lies lifeless in the square, her eyes staring at nothing, as her children wail in the background.

Mitch's team members tackle a pair of gun-toting men, being unsure of whether they are friends or foes. And indeed, it can be very difficult to tell in Afghanistan: Mitch and his team learn that each of them has a bounty on his head from the Taliban—$100,000 for one of their dead bodies, $50,000 for a bloodied uniform. ("That's it?" one exclaims.)

We see news footage from 9/11 as well as other terrorist attacks.

Crude or Profane Language

Nearly 45 f-words and about 25 s-words. Other profanities include "a--," "d--n," "h---" and "p-ss." God's name is misused more than 15 times, most with the word "d--n" connected. Jesus' name is abused 10 times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Mitch gives Dostum a bottle of vodka as a gift. As mentioned in spiritual content, it's an iffy gift. But Dostum accepts it gratefully and drinks straight from the bottle—having, it would seem, some experience in quaffing alcohol.

Other Negative Elements

Ben, a member of Mitch's force, bristles at a kid in Dostum's posse who perpetually follows him around—even eyeing him as Ben urinates. (Ben learns that because of the bounties placed on the Americans, Dostum has each of the men guarded: The boy is Ben's bodyguard.)


Mitch Nelson may be the leader of his 12-man team, but in many ways he's one of its least experienced members. He's never killed a man before arriving in Afghanistan. And when he does so during a bloody skirmish, the experience rocks him.

One of his men sidles over to him. He tells Mitch that every now and again, he's met people in the military who seems unfazed by the bloody work they must do. They kill with nary a blink. The solider says that once upon a time, he envied such men. Now he doesn't. He welcomes the complex feelings that come with a kill now. "That's the thing that reminds us that we're humans," he says.

I had a chance to talk with Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington, soldiers on whom the characters Mitch Nelson (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) were based. According to Pennington, 12 Strong does an accurate job of "depicting what a Special Forces team is all about." While the movie takes some liberty with some dramatic details, Pennington said that the feelings of isolation, and the stress and fear that families left behind feel, are spot on in this film.

12 Strong is a previously classified true story populated by heroes. And while it does indeed remind us that war is a bloody, brutal business, it insists that it's necessary business, too. The lives spent on the battlefield may well save others back home.

Nutsch and Pennington believe 12 Strong reflects the reality they saw—not in every detail, but in feel. Indeed, reality was probably quite a bit worse: More bloody, more profane. I know they're right. But that doesn't make 12 Strong any easier to watch. The content here, just like the story, speaks for itself.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Chris Hemsworth as Capt. Mitch Nelson; Michael Shannon as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer; Navid Negahban as Gen. Dostum; Michael Peña as Sgt. First Class Sam Diller; Rob Riggle as Col. Max Bowers; Trevante Rhodes as Sgt. First Class Ben Milo


Nicolai Fuglsig ( )


Warner Bros.



Record Label



In Theaters

January 19, 2018

On Video

May 1, 2018

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

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