12 Strong (Movie) Review: Pointless Propaganda

12 Strong (Movie) Review: Pointless Propaganda

If you’re going to make a film based on a true life tale of military heroism, then you’d better cram in as many pointless explosions as possible and hire Thor, General Zod, and Ant-Man’s best friend to headline. That’s the sort of thinking that goes through the head of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air, Pirates Of The Caribbean), a guy whose cocaine-induced fever dreams fuelled the action movie industry in the 80s and 90s, and who is a Hollywood man-child who will never grow up. With 12 Strong, he’s trying to make a classy war picture, but he just can’t help himself. So it feels more like a Michael Bay (a filmmaker who exists because Bruckheimer made it so) fantasy than anything resembling reality. It’s a trashy movie made by trashy people and the saddest part is that it’ll make all its money from actual war veterans and their families. That’s how propaganda works, Bruckheimer style.

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Chris Hemsworth in 12 Strong (2018) – image provided by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

The story to 12 Strong is about the first major military operation and victory of the never-ending war in Afghanistan. With 9/11 still fresh in everyone’s minds, the military sent a covert team of 12 G.I. Joes to meet up with an Afghan rebel general and take out the first Taliban warlord. The terrain was unfamiliar, the local soldiers untrained men and children. The US soldiers had never seen combat before, but were legends on the training grounds, and as no one in the military had ever fought like this before, the reasoning went, it  might as well be them. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, and a bunch of unrecognizable LA tough guy actor types star as the soldiers. Navid Negahban plays the local amateur general who sends them into battle on horseback against tanks and rocket launchers. The real story was crazy enough, but this blockbuster retelling doubles down on the macho fantasy to make something so insane that it’s almost fun. The key word is “almost.”

12 Strong falls into a new subgenre of American war movies that kicked off with the obscenely successful Clint Eastwood picture American Sniper. Essentially the mucho dolares made on that movie created a new market of blockbuster propaganda pictures that along with Call Of Duty serve as the new school version of army recruitment videos. These movies make serving in the military feel like a way to live out your childhood Rambo fantasies. Morality is never questioned. Americans are always right. The brown people are always wrong. Terrifying combat is fetishized through stylized action movie fantasy. It would be easy to laugh these movies off if they didn’t work so well for so many people.

This one is slightly better than previous entries in the genre like American Sniper, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, and Lone Survivor. By having the American soldiers team up with a gang of Afghan rebels, the movie actually makes an attempt to humanize the non-American characters. Sadly, that’s a new development. Admittedly 12 Strong does so through vaguely offensive means that turn the Afghan rebels into magical folk heroes who rant about having the hearts of warriors and need to learn how to be true war heroes from the Americans. That’s still condescending, but, sadly, condescension is a big step forward in this ra-ra Americana genre that exists primarily to serve as an act of cinematic flag waving and to blow stuff up real good.

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12 Strong (2018) – image provided by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Admittedly, with Jerry Bruckheimer in charge and a no-name first-time director (Nicolai Fuglsig) at his bidding, the action is at least pretty good. Everything is stylized to the extreme. Every moment of violence is shot from as many angles as possible and edited like a music video. Drone cameras swoop over everything for scale. Every explosion is at least twice as big as it should be and every gun has unlimited rounds of ammunition, which all looks good on the big screen and gets the blood pumping. That’s good in genre terms, even if it’s undeniably manipulative and in bad taste in terms of how it represents the actual men who fought and died in the actual story.

Sadly, the characterization doesn’t really do those men justice either. No one really feels like a fully developed human being. They all feel like action heroes and are played by larger than life actors to hammer home that bizarre vision. Chris Hemsworth is robbed of all the charisma that he just showed off in Thor Ragnarok, pouting and glowering his way through a two-dimensional role while struggling to get his mouth around an American accent that he never quite masters. The great Michael Shannon gives the first lazy and detached performance of his career. It’s a shame, but at the same time he likely clocked the movie as crap from the moment he signed on and only stuck around for a well-deserved paycheck. Only Michael Pena gets to show any of his skill and charm, yet even he is wasted by disappearing for the bulk of 12 Strong when the action kicks off. The saddest part is seeing a photo of the actual soldiers at the end. While I’m sure they were flattered to all be played by pretty boy Hollywood types, the contrast between their actual appearance and Bruckheimer’s movie star fantasy is laughable.

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Thad Luckinbill, Michael Peña, Michael Shannon, Geoff Stults, Navid Negahban, Chris Hemsworth, Fahim Fazli, Austin Hébert, and Jack Kesy in 12 Strong (2018) – image provided by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

So what we have in 12 Strong is a movie that works perfectly well as a braindead action flick, yet feels offensive for that very reason, since it trivializes the actual struggles and triumphs of being a soldier in order to sell more popcorn. It’s kind of amazing that this new strain of Hollywood war propaganda continues to succeed at all. Yet given how dependent the US economy is on keeping their war machine alive, it kind of makes sense. Years from now, audiences will look back on these trashy war blockbusters and giggle at the excesses, just as we do now with the old WW2 propaganda pictures that made Hollywood truckloads of cash decades ago. For now, anyone capable of thinking while things explode in a movie theatre just has to shake their head and wait for everyone else to catch up.


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

Want to see more videos? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check out the First 15: Dissidia Final Fantasy NT,  Star Wars Battlefront II, Sonic Forces + Episode Shadow, and  Super Mario Odyssey!

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The Shape of Water Review: Making A Monster Movie Romance

The Shape of Water Review: Making A Monster Movie Romance

Guillermo Del Toro used to save his arty genre movies for his subtitled productions and make pure genre nonsense in Hollywood. That split is over. The Mexican maestro’s latest American production is one of his most complex and moving outings to date. Of course, it does have a monster in it—that’s just how Del Toro rolls. It’s a magnificent monster as well, in many ways his take on the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s also spliced with the fairy tale romanticism of Amelie, cold war paranoia, empathetic identity politics, and some of the most beautiful filmmaking to hit screens this year. It’s a remarkable work from a remarkable artist and hopefully it does well enough for Del Toro to continue down this path. Don’t get me wrong, I love Blade II and Pacific Rim, it’s just better to see Del Toro flex all of his artistic muscles.

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Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (2017) – image via Fox

The story follows a mute janitor played by Sally Hawkins. She’s ignored by the world and lives a life of routine. She’s also living in a mythical version of Cold War America and cleans a super-secret government facility. She finds moments of magic in her life though, whether it be in the cinema she lives above or her friendships with a closeted artist roommate and an equally repressed co-worker played by Octavia Spencer. Her life goes in a tizzy with the arrival of two monsters. One is a merman creature (Del Toro’s monster regular Doug Jones) who arrives at the facility for study. The other is a government agent played by Michael Shannon who abuses his privilege and power whenever possible. She falls in love with the merman in magical and life affirming ways. She even decides to bust him out of captivity along with Jenkins, Spencer, and a secret Russian spy with a heart of gold played by Michael Stuhlbarg. The creature brings magic to all of their lives and teaches them that they shouldn’t have to keep their true selves hidden. Unfortunately, there’s that other monster and since he’s played by Michael Shannon, it’s safe to assume that he won’t let happiness be the status quo.

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Doug Jones in The Shape of Water (2017) – image via Fox

Heavy and heady stuff to be sure. Del Toro is a lifelong monster geek who revels in the ways that monsters can serve as metaphors for outsiders. The Shape of Water plays like his purest example of that theme. All the characters other than the monster are burdened by something that defines them as outsiders and repressed by society. By helping the monster escape captivity, they all find themselves and their power. It’s a pretty obvious metaphor, but one that couldn’t be more timely and is told beautifully within a fairy tale horror story so romantic and thrilling that the vegetables go down smoothly.

The Shape of Water Review: Making A Monster Movie Romance
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (2017) – image via Fox

It almost goes without saying that the film is beautifully made. That’s the Guillermo Del Toro way. Every set, costume, and shot is meticulously constructed for maximum import and impact. There are layers to everything, but the visceral entertainment rings true. The merman monster is a stunning technical achievement and heartbreaking outsider. The cold war setting ramps up the paranoia and intrigue at all times. Del Toro luxuriates in all the tools available to him in all the genres he mashes together. He even slips in a musical number and it works because the love story between the monster and the mute feels so earned and pure.

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Nigel Bennett and Michael Stuhlbarg in The Shape of Water (2017) – image via Fox

Performances are as universally impressive as the script and effects. Sally Hawkins is extraordinarily moving and empathetic despite not having a single line of dialogue at her disposal. Jenkins is equally moving and has the challenge of vocalizing all the movies themes in a way that sounds naturalistic. He pulls it off. Spencer and Stuhlbarg turn characters who could have been one note clichés into quirky and lovable support. Doug Jones finds warmth and personality beneath his mound of latex. And of course, Shannon is a force of nature as the villain. It takes a lot of skill to be a more intimidating and unpleasant screen presence in a film that features a scaly sea monster, but he does it with such ease and command that you can’t take your eyes off him. Within a film that’s so stylish, daring, creepy, and touching, somehow it’s also an effective character study with an impressive ensemble.

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Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water is a beautiful fable of the oppressed, an effective monster yarn, and one of the most beautifully unconventional love stories of the year all rolled into one. It almost feels like Del Toro’s ode to everything that he loves about life and cinema. The joy the filmmaker put into the work is infectious. Aside from the most cynical viewers, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being seduced and touched by this magnificent motion picture. It might be Guillermo Del Toro’s finest achievement and the uncertainty speaks only to the remarkable work that he’s done before. Easily one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it if you have a heart and adore movie monsters (note: if you don’t share those traits, we’ll likely never be friends).


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

Want to see more videos? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and check out the First 15: Star Wars Battlefront II, Sonic Forces + Episode Shadow, and  Super Mario Odyssey!

Don’t forget to tune in every Friday the Pixels & Ink Podcast to hear the latest news, previews, and in-depth game discussions!

Never miss when new CGM articles go out by following us on Twitter and Facebook!

CGMagazine is Canada’s premiere comics and gaming magazine. Subscribe today to get the best of CGM delivered right to your door! Never miss when a new issue goes live by subscribing to our newsletter! Signing up gives you exclusive entry into our contest pool. Sign up once, you’ll have a chance to win! Sign up today!