12 Strong is in many ways a throwback. Here's a somewhat boisterous adventure, a movie set in our desert wars where you cheer not just for the boys to make it home but for them to complete the mission itself. It tells a heightened and streamlined version of the true story of Operational Detachment Alpha 595, a squad of 12 sent in to northern Afghanistan just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, and charged with arranging the taking of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban stronghold. Aiding the squad: local warlords represented in the film by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban). With Dostum's men, the ODA 595 must ride on horseback across 40 miles of Taliban-controlled mountains, liberating small villages on the way -- and calling in airstrikes whenever they spot enemy fighters.
So, of course, 12 Strong is a more rousing entertainment than most dramas of Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal is clear, the enemies are unambiguous and the connection to the attack on our homeland is direct. The movie has what George W. Bush used to call moral clarity.
The soldiers -- led by Capt. Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena) -- bear the weight of history. They're eager to kill some Taliban, but their gung-ho spirit is tempered by professional caution and respect for Afghanistan itself.
Too bad only the final firefight is memorable. The movie also is longer than the story demands and occasionally redundant: After seeing the World Trade Center come down, do we really need to watch a Taliban leader shoot a schoolteacher in the head? Don't we all hate these guys already?