My mother lost her father shortly after her birth, when he was killed in the Battle of Normandy during World War II. My father is a retired VA physician who devoted his career to prescribing prosthetics and the physical therapy regimen for wounded soldiers.

Thus I have never found glamour in war, and rarely watch movies about war, as they too often seem like jingoistic propaganda from the Right or like anti-American hatemongering from the Left. But the new movie “12 Strong,” which recounts the story of the first dozen US special forces soldiers to enter Afghanistan after 9/11, is a surprisingly solid film that tells its tale from a fresh and little-known angle.

The movie exposes the Taliban and al-Qaeda by remembering various terrorist events with short snap shots and documentary footage ending with the attack on the World Trade Center. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is home with his little daughter, Maddie, and his wife. Maddie points to the TV showing the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and although Mitch is on leave, he springs into action reassembling his 12-man Special Forces team to go to Afghanistan and attack al-Qaeda and wipe out the Taliban.

Yet he meets resistance from his superiors, who feel he isn’t the right man for this particular job after his long stretch away from home. The movie then cuts to long sequences of leave taken by several members of the 12-man team as well as Mitch doing everything in his power to convince his superiors that he should take command and go to Afghanistan.

When he gets to the American base in Uzbekistan, he must compete with several other captains to see who’s going to be sent to try to take the city where the Taliban is headquartered, Mazar-i-Sharif. Although Mitch hasn’t had personal fighting experience, his knowledge of history of the weather gives him the edge and he’s sent to join up with a war lord named General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to go with him to take the Taliban headquarters.

Mitch’s superior thinks he can get there in six weeks, but because of the winter and the mountains, Mitch believes he only has three weeks. To make it worse, his 12-man team finds that Dostum will only give six horses to accompany them — stirring tensions as they wonder if the Afghans are just testing them, or trying to have them killed.

But when Mitch has to get close to the enemy to spot the bombs being dropped from B-52 planes at 30,000 feet, Dostum is impressed and the two teams finally work together in a series of suspenseful and exciting showdowns that eventually escalate into an incredible battle of horses versus Taliban tanks.

The battles featuring horses against massive artillery are fascinating to watch, and director Nikolai Fuglsig does an especially impressive job considering that “12 Strong” is his feature-filmmaking debut. He expertly draws out the tension in numerous sequences throughout, finding fresh twists on what could have easily been ho-hum battle scenes, while also eliciting strong performances from his cast.

Negahban does a sterling job as Dostum, lending the film complexity with his portrayal of a Muslim war lord who is humane, intelligent and on the right side of how to treat humanity. Hemsworth digs deep, showing an impressive gravitas that helps remind audiences that he’s an actor with far greater range than the histrionic heroics that he engages in while playing his best-known character, the Marvel superhero Thor.

Perhaps the unsung hero in all this is its screenwriter Ted Tally, who mastered finding the heart amid tales of slow-burning menace in his Oscar-winning script for “The Silence of the Lambs” and its sequel, “Red Dragon.” While “12 Strong” occasionally meanders and it feels like it’s coming out a few years too late to achieve maximum effectiveness, he displays those same skills here in a movie that finds a near-perfect balance between the horrors of war and the humanity of the forces who fight it.

“12 strong”: B

Capsule Reviews


Stars: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan

Length: 121 minutes

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Rating: PG13

This darkly comic biopic of disgraced US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding explores both funny and harrowingly sad aspects of her childhood into adulthood, with Janney providing a wicked turn as Tonya’s abusive and foul-mouthed mother. A powerhouse movie that is turning into a huge sleeper hit and a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars.     Grade: A


Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones

Length: 130 minutes

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: R

The story behind the decision by the Washington Post to print the infamous Pentagon Papers, a free-press battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, is recounted in occasionally rousing but often boring fashion in a movie that feels like homework more than entertainment.   Grade: B


Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

Length: 104 minutes

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rating: PG13

After two years in apparent hiding, Liam Neeson is back doing what he does best: kicking ass in January movies that start the year off with a bang. His fourth collaboration with Serra continues the winning streak of “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” by adding Hitchcockian twists and atmospherics to the tale of a man asked to find a mysterious passenger on his commuter train for $100,000.    

Grade: A


Stars: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Rating: PG13

The story behind the decision by the Washington Post to print the infamous Pentagon Papers, a free-press battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, is recounted in occasionally rousing but often boring fashion in a movie that feels like homework more than entertainment.   Grade: B


Stars: Hugh Jackman, MIchelle Williams, Zac Efron

Length: 105 minutes

Directed by: Michael Gracey

Rating: PG

Hugh Jackman uses his considerable charisma as he sings, dances and gives a terrific performance as legendary showman P.T. Barnum. The composers of “La La Land” deliver an impressive score blending hip hop and classical to create vibrant songs that drive a richly entertaining story. Efron and Williams are outstanding as well in the year’s best musical. Grade: A