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January 16, 2018

'12 Strong' is a spellbinding tale of heroism

Review: Chris Hemsworth leads his men into battle on horseback in this post-9/11 drama

"If you leave here too soon, you will be cowards. If you stay too long, you will become our enemies."

So goes a powerful exchange between the leader of the Afghanistan Alliance (who is now Vice President of Afghanistan), General Abdul Rashid Dostum (played brilliantly by Navid Negahban) and star Chris Hemsworth's Captain Mitch Nelson.

It is complex, real moments like that that elevate "12 Strong" over a typical war movie. As a tale of the first mission on foreign soil after 9/11, it jolts you full of patriotic moments without veering into jingoistic territory.

Because, hard as it is to believe, it has now been more than 16 years since 9/11, which means no high school seniors are likely to remember what it was really like in the immediate aftermath of the attacks – the shock that it happened and the feeling that America needed to do something – anything – to prevent it from happening again.

This is exemplified by Michael Shannon's Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer and Michael Pena's Sgt. First Class Sam Diller saying goodbye to their wives and families.

But it really hits home with Hemsworth's Nelson, who had decided to spend more time with his family before the attacks and then demands to be on the first team after.

The team is called Task Force Dagger and the key to their mission is not their overwhelming firepower, but joining forces to form a tenuous alliance with Dostum, to conduct unconventional warfare against Taliban forces.

It is why Nelson and his men insist on riding into battle on horses instead of jeeps, so they can be seen by their Afghan allies as equals.

If Hemsworth and the rest of the cast make you feel the humanity of the soldiers involved, the pinpoint bombing scenes at times seem like a video game. However, given the stark contrast between the overwhelming and precise American firepower to the far less advanced methods of the Afghans, such scenes actually make the film more real, not less. Many on both sides are blown away by the power and accuracy of the bombs. It does seem surreal to them.

But what makes "12 Strong" truly special is that it focuses on Nelson and his men sacrificing that advantage – at times to form a true partnership for the good of the effort as a whole.

As a result, Dotsum and the Afghans earn the Americans' trust and Nelson and his men earn the respect of the Alliance for their bravery.

This is one of Hemsworth's best performances and it comes in a film that shows the American soldiers – and their Afghan allies – as undeniable heroes and brothers in arms.

Grade: B+