12 Strong and the Choice Between Drama and Realism

12 Strong is everything you expect from a Hollywood movie about the American military machine. Featuring tough-talking soldiers, rugged wind-swept valleys and mountains, and enough explosions and gunfire for a small war, 12 Strong accomplishes what it set out to do: honour the first American Special Forces troops in Afghanistan.

Just don’t treat it as a ‘true story’.

Based on the book Horse Soldiers12 Strong follows a team of American Special Forces soldiers as they lead the tip of the spear into Northern Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, supporting a band of warriors from the Northern Alliance as they advance on the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif.

When adapting a book to the big screen, the director needs to make many choices between drama and realism to keep the audience engaged. A reader can slowly read Horse Soldiers at his leisure, soaking in every nugget of trivia over many pleasant hours; a cinema-goer can only absorb so much in a two-hour sitting. 12 Strong can’t tell the story of the entire campaign, but it can try to convey the spirit of a mission in it. And the creative choices made in 12 Strong falls in favour of drama.

Simplify and Amplify

Let’s start with the film’s premise: 12 soldiers are inserted into Afghanistan to link up with a ragtag group of rebels to defeat an army 50,000 strong. It’s a powerful notion, one that isn’t out of place with modern military thought.

But that didn’t happen.

The reality was that there were 350 Special Forces soldiers, 100 CIA officers and 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters.

Defeating an enemy army over three times your size in three weeks is an incredible feat of arms. But you can’t stuff all that into a movie. To respect the warriors who participated in the campaign, the directors fell back on the tried-and-true strategy of simplify and amplify.

12 Strong chose to simplify the story by picking the unit in the most glamorous position: the 12-man Operational Detachment Alpha 595, led by Captain Mitch Nelson, who interfaced with General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Northern Alliance. It’s a logical choice: viewers would see ODA 595 as the pivotal group that made the campaign possible, and Dostum as the savior of (northern) Afghanistan.

The movie also made sharp deviations from real life.

The early segments of the movie portrayed an antagonistic relationship between the Americans and General Dostum. It created the impression that Dostum delayed his campaign to test the Americans, even at a time when winter was rapidly approaching and the window of opportunity to conduct the campaign was closing.

The reality, as described by actual members of ODA 595, was that Dostum was a highly aggressive leader. Within 24 hours of insertion the Americans were launching a joint offensive alongside the Afghans.

There was probably less antagonism between the Americans and Afghans than depicted. In reality, the Americans and the Afghans quickly made common cause of liberating Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, whereas in the movie Dostum makes a big deal out of Nelson not having ‘killer eyes’ and refuses to cooperate with him until Nelson proves his worth. By amplifying these tensions and the urgency of the situation, I suspect the intent was to set up some kind of character development later in the movie, and to create opportunities for dramatic tension.

Despite this, I appreciate the film delving into the Americans’ interactions with the Afghans. Unlike in most Hollywood movies, the primary mission of the US Army Special Forces isn’t meeting the enemy in open battle; it is supporting local allies against the enemy. The movie at least tried to portray this in the strategy meetings and by emphasising the capabilities the Americans could bring to bear–notably close air support.

One recurring complaint against the film seemed to be the lack of character development, especially for the other American soldiers. This may well be true, but in this story there are two main veins for drama: separation from family, and cultural clashes with the Afghans. Once the troops leave home there is no longer any room for character drama.

Once in-country, soldiers need to focus completely on the job. They can’t spend their time moping about their families when they have a mission to complete. Once this avenue is closed, the only other opportunity comes from interaction with the locals and each other. With so much screen time focused on building up Nelson into a proper bloodied soldier, there isn’t much time to focus on the other characters.

In any other film, lack of character development is a cause for complaint. But in this case, I believe character development is optional. 12 Strong is a war movie based on historical events, and movie-goers watch such movies for the action set-pieces; character growth is a bonus, and it shouldn’t be forced if the events of the period didn’t allow for it.

Action Serves Drama

War follows no narrative logic. From a soldier’s perspective it is a string of battles, sometimes vaguely connected, interrupted by long periods of boredom. But to retain a viewer’s interest, the filmmaker needs to create a coherent narrative and fit the action scenes to uphold the narrative.

War films like 12 Strong live and die by their action set pieces, and the director again employ the strategy of simplify and amplify to respect the rule of drama, to reasonably good effect. Just turn off your brain when the guns start firing and you’ll be fine.

The first firefight of the film begins with Nelson trying to coordinate an attack with Dostum. Dostum points out the location of a large Taliban position. Nelson says the enemy is so far away he can’t tell if they are Taliban. Dostum gets on the radio to taunt the Taliban (which did happen in reality), and Nelson calls in an air strike. But the air strike misses, so Nelson gets in closer so he can call in more accurate coordinates–in the process getting into a firefight.

From a realism perspective, this makes no sense whatsoever. Nelson can easily see the enemy position from where he was. If the bombs missed, all he had to do was call in corrections over the radio — a relatively routine task — or break out the laser target designator.

From a dramatic perspective, the firefight was necessary for Nelson to establish his cred with the Northern Alliance. He had to demonstrate his willingness to personally engage the enemy and gain Dostum’s ‘killer eyes’.

Again and again throughout 12 Strong there are fictitious events designed specifically to create and maintain narrative tension instead of portraying historical events. The on-screen infiltration of ODA 595 was depicted as a rough helicopter flight, complete with puking, whereas an actual member of ODA 595 described as the ‘smoothest helicopter ride [he’d] ever had in his entire life’. One scene had the American coalition commander ordering the insertion of another ODA when he thinks ODA 595 can’t do the job, when in reality the overall American strategy called for multiple ODAs supporting different Northern Alliance groups respectively.

The most egregious example of drama overriding realism was the climax. ODA 595 splits into three teams to support the Northern Alliance offensive. The assault proceeds smoothly, until the Taliban launches a counterattack with a BM21 multiple rocket launcher. Air support conveniently runs out of fuel, and Nelson claims that the enemy can reload a BM21 in a minute, so the Americans saddle up and ride into glory alongside their Afghan allies, punching through the enemy defenses to neutralize the BM21.

In reality, the Taliban did counterattack with several BM21s. But it takes 10 minutes for a trained crew to reload a BM21 — the film reduces this by a factor of 10 to fit in more explosions and escalate the stakes. The Americans broke the back of the Taliban with their signature technique of calling in even more air strikes. There was no death ride to glory, with Americans riding on horseback and mowing down enemy troops at point blank with full auto fire like modern-day cowboys. The Afghans certainly liked to do that, but many of the Americans had never ridden a horse before; having the Americans suddenly gain the ability to ride a horse with one hand, fire a carbine with the other, and actually hit what they are shooting at beggars belief.

This, however, is Hollywood, and Hollywood knows that readers would quickly get bored of seeing Americans calling in air strikes over and over and over again (as they did in real life). To retain audience interest, the filmmakers artificially amplified the final firefight by having the Americans close with and destroy the Taliban instead of calling in stand-off munitions.

Likewise, the climax has General Dostum personally locating the Taliban commander who served as the movie’s antagonist and personally executing him. Dostum’s feats are certainly the stuff of legend, but ODA 595 recounts no such incident. More than likely this incident was fabricated for the interests of drama. Every dramatic work needs an identifiable antagonist to retain the audience, and the Taliban commander served as the stand-in for all the other Taliban leaders the Northern Alliance and Americans defeated.

And what was the point of this thin conflict between Dostum and the Taliban commander? At the film’s end Dostum learns that another band of Northern Alliance fighters had beaten him to Mazar-i-Sharif. It’s established early on that failure to win the race to Mazar-i-Sharif could cause the Northern Alliance to disintegrate, but since Dostum has slain his personal archenemy he greets his Northern Alliance counterpart with a magnanimous smile and handshake — which, in turn, implies that the Northern Alliance remains intact.

This is a far cry from reality, as the Americans ultimately credited Dostum for capturing Mazar-i-Sharif. But because the filmmakers amplified the internal splits within the Northern Alliance for drama, they must now show Dostum as a leader capable of rising above petty desires to keep the alliance together — and, as a bonus, it’s a nod towards character growth.

Documentaries should accurately capture every interesting detail of an event as far as possible. Creative adaptations, however, follow a different kind of logic. They must, above all, capture and sustain the audience’s attention — and that means employing dramatic license at every opportunity.

Rule of Drama

Readers have all the time in the world to process every minute detail in a book. Film-goers only have the length of the film to absorb its content. Adapting a book to film requires the filmmakers to make many difficult choices between drama and realism. Filmmakers must make choices that suit the nature of their medium and the needs of their audiences, which means the adapted material will usually be bent in favour of maximum drama.

12 Strong exemplifies the kind of dramatic license needed to adapt a book into a film. It certainly takes liberties with details large and small, but it’s not a documentary and was never meant to be an accurate portrayal of events. It set out to celebrate the elite American soldiers who dealt the first blow of righteous vengeance against the Taliban in the autumn of 2001, and in that sense it accomplished what it set out to do.

Just don’t take its tagline of ‘true story’ seriously.

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If you don’t want to choose between drama and realism, check out my novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

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