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Film / 12 Strong

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After the sudden and deliberate attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001, a young and idealistic Green Beret Captain Mitch Nelson volunteers for a first-strike mission in Afghanistan against the Taliban. He assembles a team of his most trusted soldiers to establish a link with one of their key allies in the troubled region, a muj'ahadeen fighter named Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Afghan Northern Alliance. While initially at odds with each other's way of waging warfare, they eventually learn to work together and set off to eliminate Taliban presence out of their stronghold town of Mazar-i Sharif, before the winter sets in and potentially turn this mission into a long, drawn-out bloodbath.


This film provides examples of:

  • Arc Words: "Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires".
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: Dostun initially dismisses Mitch as the American's leader due to his relatively young age and inexperience with killing. After several battle Mitch quickly proves himself to be both a warfighter and a capable leader.
  • Big Bad: Mullah Razzan, a warlord who rules a portion of Afghanistan under the Taliban's ultra strict and perverted interpretation of Sharia law alongside his Al-Qaeda allies.
  • The Chains of Commanding: While Mitch explains that he answers to one of many superiors in his army, Dostun proudly declares that he only answers to one person only: God.
  • Changed My Mind, Kid: Dostun returns for the final battle for Mazar-i Sharif after previously abandoning the Americans due to the perceived betrayal of allowing another rival tribe the glory of taking the city.
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  • Child Soldiers: One of Dostum's people is a very young Afghan fighter who is apparently tasked to shadow Milo and protect him with his life. Milo is initially annoyed by this until he figures out the kid's predicament and slowly warms up to his presence.
  • Coup de Grâce: In the final battle, Dostun personally corners Razzan in his stuck escape vehicle and delivers a controlled, satisfying headshot to the Taliban leader.
  • Death from Above: The key advantage the Green Berets offer their Afghan allies is airstrikes conducted by B-52s from high-altitude, but in order to do this, they have to get close as possible to the enemy positions with the assistance and protection from the muj'ahadeen to maximize the bomb's accuracy.
  • Dirty Coward: Taliban leader Mullah Razzan attempts to flee the moment the Americans close in on his rocket truck's position. Dostun isn't having any of it.
  • Doomed Hometown: Dostun reveals that their recently retaken town used to be under his rule before the Taliban came and took over. He reminisces over better days back when there was no violence, women weren't required to wear veils and people could even freely watch foreign movies at the theatres.
  • Enemy Mine: The only reason the Northern Alliance even exists is that the Taliban are regarded as the worst option to rule any portion of Afghanistan. Else, the "allied" tribes are more likely to shoot each other on sight should they ever come in range of one another.
  • Firing in the Air a Lot: The mujahadeen does this either to celebrate a victory or welcome their comrade-in-arms. The Green Berets are jumpy and annoyed whenever this happens.
  • Forever War: Many characters take the time to note the Afghanistan region's sordid history of constant warfare, where every single invading empire would be doomed to fail and then collapse shortly afterwards. Dostun notes that the Americans won't likely fare any different from their predecessors. Two decades later he was right.
  • Graceful Loser: Dostum rushes to meet his rival Atta after the final battle. Just when things look tense to Mitch, Dostum offers Atta a respectful handshake and allows the latter to take all the glory of reclaiming Mazar-i Sharif.... for the moment at least.
  • Historical Domain Character: The real-life Abdul Rashid Dostum would later become the Vice-President of Afghanistan by 2014.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Dostum, while still an authoritarian warlord, is ultimately portrayed as an honourable Proud Warrior Race Guy who fights to restore freedom and equal rights to Afghanistan. In real life, he and his fellow Northern Alliance commanders were implicated in numerous war crimes in the civil war that led up to the rise of the Taliban. The real-life Battle of Mazar-i-Sharif itself was followed by the Dasht-i-Leili massacre, where Dostum's forces allegedly executed hundreds of surrendered Taliban fighters or left them to suffocate in shipping containers. And while the movie's epilogue mentions his appointment as the Vice-President of Afghanistan in 2014, it helpfully leaves out the 2016 scandal where he abused his post to torture and sexually assault a political rival; in fact, at the time of the movie's 2018 release, Dostum was living in exile in Turkey over the case.
    • His introduction scene to Mitch also heavily implies that Dostum picked up the Russian language while fighting with the mujahideen against the Soviets. In real life, Dostum started his career as a warlord on Soviet payroll, leading the 53rd Division that formed the backbone of the Soviet-backed regime's army until he defected to the mujahideen in 1992.
  • Hollywood Tactics: While initially sounding absurd at first, the Afghan fighters employ cavalry tactics against the Taliban surprisingly to great effect at times, but some scenes do show them falling in droves against the very type of weapon that made horse cavalry obsolete in the first place: machine guns.
  • Horseback Heroism: Pretty much everyone from the American-Afghan alliance are characterized as heroic while riding into battle on horseback while the Taliban opt for old rusting Soviet trucks and armoured vehicles.
  • I Can Still Fight!: Due to his slightly older age and inexperienced at riding horses, Hal Spencer gets a slipped disc halfway through the mission effectively crippling his back. He insists on soldiering on, since spotting targets doesn't involve strenuous movement at the very least.
  • I Shall Taunt You: While overlooking a suspected Taliban position, Mitch tells Dostun that he needs people down there to both accurately pinpoint coordinates and confirm that the targets down there are actually Taliban. After several back and forth arguments between the two, Dostun picks up his radio in frustration, switches to the open channel and taunts the Taliban group by asking them if they are actually Taliban so he and his new American friends can bomb the shit out of them. A cacophony of on-air insults later confirms this.
    Dostun: See? (points at Taliban) Drop bombs.
  • I Surrender, Suckers: During the climax, a group of Taliban approaches Hal's group waving white flags and guns apparently to surrender. The Americans are very much wary about this, but the Taliban group inches close enough for one of them to clack a suicide vest.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: The Taliban bring up an old Soviet BM-21 MLRS truck to frighteningly good effect against the Americans and Dostun's forces. A good part of the climax is a race to disable the truck before it can reload and unleash more waves of hell.
  • Race Lift: Two members of Mitch's Green Berets are Black and Latino respectively when in Real Life, all of the Green Berets that first arrived at Afghanistan were White.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: During their first meeting, Dostun repeatedly glosses over Mitch and seemingly assumes Hal to be their group's leader due to the latter's age and experience. When Mitch tries to make it clear that he is the one actually in charge, Dostun accurately points out the Green Beret's who have "killer eyes", then declares that Mitch is too young and does not have "killer eyes".
  • Real Men Love Allah: The Afghans are very proud over their love for God and are often shouting His name in their war chants.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Zig-zagged. Laser-precision guided airstrikes are key tactics used by the Americans to help thin out Taliban supply lines and heavy armour, but the muj'ahadeen horseback cavalry are often needed to traverse the rough Afghan terrain and sometimes their best solution against the enemy is a head-on charge, guns blazing.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: One of the recurring themes of the film. Captain Nelson and the rest of ODA-595 are professional special operation soldiers while Dostun and his muj'ahadeen pride themselves over being warriors instead. They initially clash over their ideals when Nelson accuses Dostun of wasting men over pointless head-on battles while Dostun chides Nelson over his overly-cautious attitude to fighting a war without the necessary sacrifice and will. They eventually acknowledge the advantages of each other's combat philosophies: the Green Berets tactics and superior technology in using guided airstrikes to soften up enemy positions and cut off further reinforcements, while the sheer fighting spirit of Dostun's boots-on-the-ground against the main ground forces of the Taliban.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Afghan Northern Alliance are a loose and scattered union of formerly-warring tribes whose only common goal is the elimination of the far more ruthless Taliban. Mitch notes that they're more likely to fight one another if they ever happen to come across one another in the middle of the battlefield, alliance be damned. Indeed, when Dostun learns that his rival Atta Muhammad also has the assistance of the Americans and that the overall strategy requires Atta's force to retake Mazar-i Sharif first, Dostun flies into a rage and pretty much refuses to assist Mitch's men any further.