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!

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Five Of The Finest War Films: Five Movies, Five Wars, Five Perspectives

Five Of The Finest War Films: Five Movies, Five Wars, Five Perspectives

War. What is it good for? According to the song, absolutely nothing. However, it has been responsible for decades worth of riveting cinema. The War Film is a genre founded on military propaganda that has grown into something far more complex. The greatest war movies offer their filmmakers a chance to flex their directorial muscles in ways that show off a skill with spectacle and visceral cinematic artistry while also offering resonant commentary on the human condition through our most devastating of actions and tragedies. It’s a rich genre filled with brilliant artistry and harsh truths, one that sadly continues to thrive since we can never seem to get over the whole “war” thing as a species.

So, in keeping with our month-long exploration of depictions of war across all our favourite media, the time has come for your friendly neighbourhood CGM critic to talk up war movies. However, rather than doing a simple listicle, I thought I’d try something different. There are simply too many war movies to rank and too much controversy involved in getting that ranking wrong. So instead, my top five list of war films will be broken down into the best film representing a different war of the 20th century. It allows for a little more variance and exploration. No two wars are alike after all, and neither are the ways in which some of the finest filmmakers of their eras explored the wars they lived through. So without further ado, let’s get down to talkin’ war movies, people!

The First World War: Paths of Glory (1957)

Five Of The Finest War Films: Five Movies, Five Wars, Five Perspectives
Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957)

The first of many movies about war that Stanley Kubrick made over his career, in many ways Paths Of Glory remains his most potent statement on the subject. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best and most unsettling depictions of the trench warfare of the First World War. Through a series of his trademark long tracking shots, Kubrick vividly depicts the long, muddy, and inhumane trenches where soldiers waited to fight, as well as showcasing the impossible task of surviving a march through No Man’s Land. It’s vicious and nasty, far removed from any of the more heroic and stylized visions of the conflict that had appeared on screen at the time. More than that, Kubrick’s story presents a morality play within a messy war that defied rationality and had little in the way of easily identifiable heroes and villains. The film is about a group of soldiers who refuse to participate in an attack that’s an open suicide mission dictated by inhumane generals and who are then tried for death for their “crimes.” It’s a fascinating and illuminating exploration of the irony and insanity of war, where human lives are often considered little more than statues on a game of Risk by generals who never see combat. No war embodied those themes more than the First World War, and no film could say it better than Stanley Kubrick’s Path’s Of Glory. A masterpiece.

The Second World War: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, and Adam Goldberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998)

No war has received more cinematic treatments than the Second World War and that’s likely because it’s one of the few wars with clear cut morality, heroes, and villains. It clear-cuts sense to pick Steven Spielberg’s masterful “men on a mission” tale Saving Private Ryan for this slot. Sure, the movie raises moral questions and depicts the madness of war, yet for the most part it’s a very clear combat tale with grand heroic gestures and satisfying catharsis. I mean, it stars Tom Hanks for godsakes. Obviously, that removes any sense of moral ambiguity. Yet, despite the all the ra-ra war movie rousing on display, Spielberg never loses sight of the horror and pain of combat. The opening D-Day sequence remains the most visceral, violent, and horrifying battle sequence ever shot, thrusting audiences headfirst into the madness and mayhem of D-Day without holding back anything. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is one of the most brutal and realistic war films ever made, just housed within a clear cut morality play for one of the few wars that can be broken down into black and white. It is probably the best of all Second World War films for a variety of reasons. Plus, the movie also gave Vin Diesel one of his first major roles. That’s important too.

The Korean War: M*A*S*H* (1971) 

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Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland, Bud Cort, Elliott Gould, Kim Atwood, and John Schuck in MASH (1970)

Ah yes, the forgotten major war of the 20th century. The Korean War is rarely discussed these days despite the massive loss of life and rarely has it ever been depicted on film. There is one masterpiece based on that war though, although it’s been somewhat forgotten. The M*A*S*H* TV series has long overshadowed Robert Altman’s ground-breaking film, despite being nowhere near as interesting. Sure, there’s no combat shown in this wacky romp about war surgeons on the battlefield. However, that’s because the movie focuses on a very different side of being a soldier. The men in M*A*S*H* were drafted into a war they never believed in or wanted to fight, yet they serve by performing surgery in bloody scenes played in a straight and horrifying manner. In between saving lives and surviving stressful duty, the M*A*S*H* gang blow off steam through their own brand of anti-authoritarian madness. It’s a unique exploration of the effect being in a war zone can have on the minds of those who serve and the ways in which they escape through their own forms of playful madness to avoid succumbing the real thing. There’s a lot going on in the movie for those who care to look and even decades later Altman’s oddball war comedy remains one of the most unique, unconventional, and thoughtful explorations of life on the battlefield. Sure, it kind of falls apart somewhere near the odd football finale, but hey! The fact that this film manages to say so much about war and life in the army without actually showing combat is still quite a special achievement worth savouring.

The Vietnam War: The Deer Hunter (1978)

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Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter (1978)

First off, it has to be stated that The Deer Hunter is not a particularly accurate depiction of the Vietnam war, but that’s not the point. Michael Chimino’s masterful epic is a fable. It’s the tale of a group of small town men who sign up for war in an act of macho patriotism and find themselves thrust into a messy madness that in no way represents their masculine fantasies. They emerge either broken or hailed heroes in ways they never quite understand and even their friends and family who never left for the battlefield find their lives scarred and forever changed. It’s a beautiful film that explores war as a reoccurring sickness that forever harms and alters every life it touches. Given that Vietnam was such a troubled and confused war, no movie captured the effects and pains of battle better (even if the historical details weren’t quite right).

The Gulf War: Three Kings (1999)

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George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze in Three Kings (1999)

David O. Russell’s Three Kings is one of the strangest films ever made about war, rooted in the possibly the oddest and least explicable conflict of the 20th century. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube star as a trio of confused soldiers in Bagdad celebrating the end of a war that they barely participated in. After a hot tip found in a bum (don’t ask), they discover a hidden hideaway of Saddam Hussein’s gold and decide to stage a heist. Obviously everything goes wrong, but at least goes wrong in ways that make them finally understand the pain suffered by those who lived under Saddam’s regime. As a result, they finally decide to do something right. The wild movie starts as a strange comedy before slowly morphing into something far more humane and meaningful. In a way, it perfectly captures the sentiment of soldiers in both of the recent Iraq Wars; young men who entered the service as a job and are forced into fighting a conflict that they’ll never truly understand. Yet even within that painful and confused place, it is possible to find a way to be a hero as long as you actually care about helping people rather than battling for political gain. Heady stuff for such a gleefully entertaining movie, but definitely the style of war film we deserve in such a morally and politically confused era for armed conflict.


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!

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