If there was ever a story from the endless war in Afghanistan that needed to be told, the story of the Horse Soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group was it. Just weeks after the terrifying events of 9/11 played out, the Army inserted a Special Forces A-Team, ODA-595 into Afghanistan to link up with fighters from the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban. It was a classic UW (Unconventional Warfare) mission, one that only Special Forces train for and is able to conduct.
The Northern Alliance fighters didn’t have vehicles, they traveled across the steep mountains of Afghanistan on horseback. The SF men embedded with Afghan fighters, and they too moved on horses, fought alongside them while calling in airstrikes that decimated a numerically superior enemy that had tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery.
The producers billed it as “the declassified true story of the horse soldiers.” So, did SF finally get its Hollywood film after the Navy SEALs had several made of their exploits during the Global War on Terror? Yes and no. Which we’ll explain later. And while the story is true and it really happened, Hollywood made it into a fictional representation.
The film was based off the book, The Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, and when turning the pages it reads like a novel or a bad B movie, but everything that appears in the book truly happened.
Chris Hemsworth is the star of the show and the story. He portrays a Special Forces Captain named Mitch Nelson, whose has served on an SF A-Team but has asked for a staff job because he’s trying to spend some time with his family. Soon after moving into a new home, Nelson and his family watch the events of 9/11 unfold on his television.
Nelson is based on the real-life Mark Nutsch and his XO Hal Spencer, portrayed by Michael Shannon, is the grizzled, old veteran. Shannon’s character is based on the real-life Bob Pennington, who was a CW4 on A-595.
Jerry Bruckheimer is known as a producer who likes his bang for the buck. And he didn’t disappoint here. But unlike some of his other films that go over the top, the action sequences were wonderfully presented. The director making his film debut, Nicholas Fuglsig, previously covered the war as a photojournalist and he captures the action perfectly.
The sweeping, jagged mountains with incredible vistas are offset in the valley where the Taliban, finding themselves in the same pickle that they forced on the Russians a decade plus earlier. They have heavy tanks and armor that are tied to the narrow roads that bisect the mountains. And they’re facing a tough, determined enemy that has the ability to outmaneuver them, despite their archaic mode of transportation. The cinematography has the gritty realism that shows what a dirty business war is. All the while showing a B-52 bomber soaring in the clear blue sky, 30,000 feet above, dropping 2000 pound bombs into the Taliban below.
Fuglsig didn’t get caught up in the BS political speak that often mars war films. The men know why they’re there, because of 9/11, but after that, there are no more sweeping speeches about God and country. The men are fighting to do their job and to protect one another.
Nelson’s mission is to link up with the Uzbek guerrilla warlord General Dostum, wonderfully portrayed by Navid Negahban, who many viewers will know from “Homeland”, gain their trust and take the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i- Sharif. The interaction between Nelson and Dostum is very good as the former tries to influence the warlord while proving himself, time and again.
Dostum initially doesn’t trust Nelson as he doesn’t have “killer eyes” and prefers the older Spencer.
But other than Nelson, Spencer, and Dostrum, we really don’t get to know much about the other characters. Michael Pena, the excellent character actor seems to be the senior enlisted team member, the team sergeant but they never really acknowledge that. Pena’s wise-cracking SFC Sam Diller deserved more airplay but we only get short glimpses into what he’s about. Rob Riggle gets a serious role as Colonel Bowers. Riggle was a PAO officer in Central Command during the early part of the war in Afghanistan. William Fichtner plays the steely-eyed Colonel John Mulholland. Fichtner has been in many war films but with his shaved head here, is almost unrecognizable.
When the team learns their Northern Alliance guerrilla force doesn’t have vehicles (Toyota Hilux) as they thought but only horses it is a bit of a shock. Only Nelson who grew up on a ranch has riding experience. In reality, the shock was as great for the horses as the men. The guerrillas gave the SF troops their spare horses which were smaller and the animals were not used to carrying bigger American men loaded down with all their kit.
But the visual of seeing an American Green Beret loaded down with modern weapons and gear riding on a horse was a wonderful anachronism just as they call down the rain of bombs from the B-52s. Later Nelson and A-Team lead an attack with the Northern Alliance on Taliban and Al-Qaeda positions, fortified with armored vehicles while on horseback.
Fuglsig blends an awesome visual here with a musical score that keeps you on the edge of your seat and brings the viewer right into the action. For the action film lovers out there, this will satisfy them, Bruckheimer is at his best when he’s showing explosions and non-stop gunfire and with the surround sound of the theater, you’ll feel it.
So back to the top, is this a “Special Forces” film? As I said above it is and it isn’t. Why? For the SF veterans we can see and recognize the patches and crossed arrow brass on the collars of the officers in what is the headquarters at Ft. Campbell, but not a Green Beret was seen. In fact, there isn’t one in the entire film except when Nelson’s family sees Donald Rumsfeld on television talking about the “Horse Soldiers.” Only then do we see a few SF troops standing far behind him. The terms “Green Beret” and Special Forces are mentioned very few times. As the team lifted off, they were singing a few bars of the Ballad of the Green Beret, but it was somewhat muted by the roar of the helicopter blades.
Except for the trained eye, the average viewer may come away with confusion as to who exactly these men were. Am I being nitpicky here? Perhaps. No mention was made either that the team was augmented by an Air Force Combat Controller who was instrumental in bringing down the rain on the Taliban.
There was as mentioned above, the lack of the Team Sergeant role in the film. As everyone in SF knows, the officers command the teams but the team sergeants are the men who drive the train. The interaction between the men and the team sergeant are what makes A-Teams go. There was a little of the banter of what SF team rooms unique, but not much. Pena’s character Diller is the closest thing we see to a true team sergeant but it was seeming like it was only Nelson and Spencer running the show here. Perhaps having an SF military advisor to the filmmakers would have made that clearer.
Then there was the standard issue with nearly all war films, that are out there, where the actors have those M-4s with the never-ending magazines. The only magazine change I saw was at the end of the climactic battle when Nelson finally changes his out. But that has been an issue with nearly every war film ever made. Some of the kit the men are wearing looks closer to what the guys are wearing today than what they would have had in 2001. But again, we’re just picking here.
In the theater, I could hear some voices of probable conventional military veterans questioning why none of the SF men were wearing helmets or body armor. The simple answer is, they didn’t have any. Their Northern Alliance cohorts didn’t have any and the weight factor of the chopper ride in made the troops decide to forego them. Such is the way of life in a UW scenario where you have to make rapport with the host forces.
One excellent portrayal was the aircraft used. The Army cooperated with the film and actual members of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment flew the real deal helicopters for the filming. The mountains of Afghanistan were pretty nicely represented by the terrain of New Mexico which was a surprise. I thought the producers would have opted for the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
Overall, the production was fine. Hemsworth was excellent as the steely-eyed (with eventual killer eyes), barrel-chested Special Forces captain. One interesting aspect which was nice was that the super action hero who played “Thor” is forced to prove himself again and again. There is your Special Forces Selection hook for the SFAS cadre. If Thor has to prove himself every day, you better come prepared and yes, you are always being evaluated. Shannon, Pena, and Negahban were all excellent in their own roles.
This was a good film, and will certainly please fans of the action genre. Does it play with the facts a bit as Hollywood is apt to do? Of course it does. But let’s not forget it is honoring what the real men of ODA-595 did. And that was one of the most classic UW operations ever conducted. A handful of Special Forces teams, inserted into Afghanistan with Northern Alliance fighters and supported by US Air Force air strikes, brought the Taliban and Al Qaeda to their knees. The fact the US screwed the pooch in the end game doesn’t come into the picture here. Nor that the US is still embroiled in the fighting. This isn’t the big picture here. It is simply these soldiers’ story. And it is a fantastic one.
Nutsch and Pennington, the real Nelson and Spencer have said the producers of the film do a good job of trying to capture the essence of the Special Forces men in the post 9/11 era. That is good enough.
Go see “12 Strong”. You’ll be glad you did. DOL
Photos: Warner Bros./US Army