Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January! Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.
The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.
An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.
Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.
Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem insurmountable.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.
The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.
The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.
Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.