12 Strong aka Horse Soldiers aka Them Horse Boyz

Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig (2018)
by Hunter Bush

I was instructed by Moviejawn HQ to focus solely on Michael Shannon for the duration of my viewing of 12 Strong; his performance, how his character's actions help move the story along, etc., etc. But that gets increasingly harder to do as the movie goes on. Here’s the bad news, gang: there isn't nearly enough Michael Shannon in this flick.

Don't get me wrong now - I know this is based on a true story (and the book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton) and thereby bound to represent. But it's still a movie, not a documentary, and I intend to talk about it from that perspective. As such, I will reiterate: I am sorely lacking in Michael Shannon in this movie. That isn't to say that the other performances aren't enjoyable. Chris Hemsworth does the stoic action movie thing as Captain Mitch Nelson just fine. Michael Peña is inexorably likable as the sarcastic Sgt. First Class Sam Diller, joking about buying timeshares in the middle of a crossfire; Trevante Rhodes makes his performance as Sgt. First Class Ben Milo shine through a familiar tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold shtick, and Navid Negahban takes you from distrusting his General Dostum to admiring his willingness to make peace amidst a war. All these performances are very engaging.

But none. Of them. Is Michael Shannon.

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Shannon (as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer) enters in the second scene of the movie. We've opened with pre-9/11 terrorism news footage (for context) and seen Thor's family (his daughter turns off the 1987 Chipmunk Adventure movie to find 9/11 happening), but Michael Shannon and the rest of his team were on a training exercise, waist-deep in a river in full camouflage, complete with face paint, when the attacks happened. Shannon speaks for all of America at that moment in time:

MS: "What happened?"

Back at the military base, Shannon and his crew are trying to process everything and sort out what to do next when Thor shows up. They had been a unit until recently, when Hemsworth had requested a desk job to be near his family but now he's itching to defend America. Only problem is Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle) doesn't think he can cut it. Luckily, Michael Shannon is there to go to bat for him, telling Bowers:

MS: "You pull this team, you're cutting the head off of your most venomous snake."

Shannon's wife (Allison King) finds him packing thermal underwear in the garage and, cliche though it may be, Shannon definitely sells the idea that none of these men want to leave their families, but are duty-bound to it. His face when he tells his son he loves him is heartbreaking.

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After that, Shannon does what he does best, apparently: standing behind Hemsworth, lending him gravitas through sheer proximity as Thor takes a meeting with Colonel Mulholland (William Fichtner) to pitch himself as the right man to lead the task force into Afghanistan. Perhaps thanks to Shannon, Mulholland agrees. They'll be the first team into the region after 9/11, using (at the time) cutting-edge technology to call in precision airstrikes. Hemsworth equates them (through sheer volume of unknowns) to the first men in space, to which Shannon unleashes a charmingly unhinged laugh:

MS: "You know what they sent into space first? A monkey!"

Thor picks his team (spoilers: there's 12 of them) and they find out that they'll be using a sandstorm as cover to fly in to meet their escort, travelling at 1,500 feet in a chopper designed for a third that height, exposed to the elements and without the benefit of oxygen tanks, at the risk of hypoxia. Michael Shannon is the defacto Chopper Cheerleader in this scene, reassuring everyone that they kind of have no choice, so why not just get it over with. They land, make their rendezvous, and are lead to an outpost nicknamed The Alamo to await a meeting with Afghan warlord General Dostum (Negahban) who will be their guide in the region, helping them locate Taliban factions.

When Dostum arrives, he mostly ignores Thor, focusing instead on Michael Shannon, who he kisses on both cheeks. Dostum tells Thor that he doesn't have killer's eyes, like Michael Shannon and the others do. Clearly Michael Shannon is the teacher's pet (warlord's pet?).

Up until this point, I thought I knew what the drinking game for this movie would be: Drink every time Michael Shannon stands around a little behind Hemsworth, looking like the Serious Man he is, which Shannon has done quite a bit. But General Dostum apparently has other plans: he only brought six ponies meaning Thor has to split Task Force Dagger in twain! So, I mean, of course, you want Michael Shannon in charge of the Bravo team (who are staying behind at the Alamo) because he's your right-hand man, but it sucks for me and any other Shannon-heads because he's effectively out of the movie for half of it!

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Eventually, the two halves do reconnect, but Shannon's Hal Spencer suffered a slipped disc from riding the horses and spends a lot of the back end of this movie laying down! (For Pete's sake! I came here for the Michael Shannon and now you're just teasing me!) On the positive side, Shannon does have the line: "That's the great thing about air strikes, you can call 'em in laying down!" and in the final action sequence, we get some nice Michael Shannon: Sniper action, but then to add injury to insult, Spencer gets injured.

This is where the movie and I really gelled because at that point Hemsworth's sole focus becomes taking out this big honkin' multiple missile launcher the Taliban has mounted on a pickup because as long as it's active, they won't be able to get a rescue chopper in to save Michael Shannon. And, as though the movie knew it had to make it up to me, it saved the best action sequence for the Shannonless gap right here: Hemsworth, on horseback, leading a group of General Dostum's men directly through a war zone to take out this Rocket Thing. It's a sequence that could have felt very much like a video game, but managed not to. The direction is all very close, showing how all the men on horseback were essentially rubbing shoulders with each other in this assault.

I do have to give this movie props (do the kids still say props?) in one regard though: their treatment of the horses. There were a lot of instances of CG gunfire and explosions, which would usually bug me, but I believe in this instance it was done in service of the animal actors; obviously a CG explosion is preferable to scaring the holy hell out of some poor unassuming horse actor who only knows he's supposed to do his "falling down trick" now. There were also two shots of kind of hilariously fake horses presumably getting shot and throwing their riders. Director Nicolai Fuglsig and / or DP Rasmus Videbæk shot around them very well, but I was specifically looking for these type of effects.

In case you couldn't tell from my inability to call the Rocket Thing by whatever its proper term is, I'm not a big military guy and when I do watch a war movie, I tend to go for the older films or the ones about the older wars. Maybe that's because they're over? I'm not sure. Regardless, this movie does a good job of keeping things in perspective. Obviously, this is a war that we, as a country, are still involved in. So it would be impossible to give the movie some kind of grand scale view of the whole thing, as that would require distance we couldn't possibly have. So keeping everything focused on this team and what they accomplished is smart and effective.

It also avoids pandering to patriotism, which I find incredibly distasteful. "Because America" is never really used as a justification for anything, or a rallying cry, and things aren't as oversimplified as they could've been. Instead the situation with what's known as the Northern Alliance (basically all the disparate military groups that want the Taliban out of that region) is depicted as being a tenuous and complex lacework of smaller alliances; that old adage "My enemy’s enemies are my friends" is touched on with the caveat that they may not all be friends with each other.

All in all this isn't quite the military movie I was expecting, for better or worse. In my head, it was a wild, horse-ridin', gun-shootin' adventure called Them Horse Boyz but the reality was a fairly measured film about soldiers being incredibly good at their jobs and accomplishing one groundbreaking feat after another. If this movie even kind of seems like your thing, I'd recommend it, just don't expect to get enough Michael Shannon.