Sunday, June 3, 2018

A movie of the post-9/11 moment

For many years, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath were not viewed as especially appropriate topics for movies. Nor did 9/11 appear much in novels for many years.

This was not because the subject matter was taboo. (Almost nothing is taboo, nowadays—among the right audience.) Rather, the 9/11 attacks were the news. They were current events. Film (and fiction) are best used for reflection and escapism. (To illustrate this point: How many of you are ready for a movie about the 2016 general election in the U.S.? Didn’t think so.)

Now, however, 9/11 is seventeen years behind us. For me, the terrorist attacks are a fully adult memory. I was thirty-two when they occurred; and I watched the events unfold on my computer at work, along with the rest of my colleagues. But today’s twenty-one year-old was only three or four years old on September 11, 2001.

That is enough time to allow for some reflection in the public consciousness. I remember watching Platoon at the cinema as an eighteen year-old in 1986, and being blown away by it. I also recall commentators of the time noting that finally, thirteen years after the American pullout, we were ready for thoughtful and reflective movies about Vietnam. Chronologically, Vietnam was to my generation what the troubles in the Middle East are to today’s young adults: events we barely remembered seeing on television, if we remembered them at all.

And the seventeen-year gap between 9/11 and the present provides similar space for reflection and perspective. Much has happened since 9/11, after all: the long, costly war in Iraq, four rancorous presidential elections, and protracted public debates over immigration, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism. 

Now is therefore the time for a movie like 12 Strong. The movie is based on Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book, Horse Soldiers (2009). 12 Strong is the story of a group of American commandos who, in October of 2001—mere days after 9/11—teamed up with a faction of the Northern Alliance to strike back at the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

Chris Hemsworth plays Mitch Nelson, a US Army captain who leads a group of Special Forces and CIA operatives into Afghanistan to link up with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general in the fractious Northern Alliance. Without throwing in too many spoilers, I’ll reveal that the US commandos end up riding into combat in Mazar-i Shariff on horseback. 

The combat scenes in which men on horseback do battle against Soviet T-72 tanks are visually stunning, all the more so because the story is based on fact. But this isn’t a John Wayne film. I wouldn’t call 12 Strong a bloodily violent movie, but it doesn’t flinch from the realities of modern insurgent combat. 

Nor does the film flinch from taking sides. There is at least one scene that depicts the brutalities of life under Taliban rule, and what that meant to girls, women, and moderate Muslims. There is no fashionable cynicism about the American mission in this movie. We can guess that George Clooney, and many other Hollywood types, would have wanted nothing to do with it. 

Aside from the fight against the Taliban, the interactions between the US team and its Afghan allies provide a source of ongoing tension, that is not fully resolved until near the very end. The filmmakers avoided the temptation to portray the Afghans as noble savages or bumbling Third World buffoons. Dostum and his men are prone to petty rivalries with other Northern Alliance factions. They are at times foolishly vain, and fail to share all relevant information with their American counterparts. But they are also serious about defeating the Taliban, and restoring some sense of moderation to Afghan life. In one scene, Dostum (Navid Negahban) laments that in the Afghanistan of his boyhood, there were movies and music, and girls could go to school. 

As most readers will know, America’s mission in the Middle East was soon to become controversial. A few years after the events of 12 Strong took place, President George W. Bush would order the invasion of Iraq. A decade after that, the civil war in Syria would make American policy in the Middle East seem somewhat impotent as President Obama declared one meaningless red line after another. Waves of Muslim refugees—and further acts of Islamic terrorism in the West—would challenge the comfortable assumptions of the multiculturalist crowd, pitting cultural elites against populists in both Europe and America. 

But in October of 2001, the mission was simple and righteous, and mostly uncontroversial. (Practically everyone, with the exception of a few cranks on the far, far left, supported the initial strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.) 

It would be disrespectful and frivolous to call that time quaint; but it was a time when our casus belli and desired outcomes in the Middle East were far simpler and more readily definable. 12 Strong adroitly captures that moment in history, and provides two hours of solid entertainment in the process.