This Is a Movie Review: ’12 Strong’ Declassifies Post-9/11 Afghanistan But Doesn’t Have the Wherewithal to Ask the Tough Questions

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CREDIT: David James/HS Film, LLC/Warner Bros.

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Navid Negahban, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Typical War Violence and Expletives, Though Far From the Genre’s Most Explicit

Release Date: January 19, 2018

12 Strong dramatizes a U.S. military operation immediately following the September 11 attacks, in which Task Force Dagger struck back against the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. A mission that could have lasted years is instead completed in a matter of weeks. Thus, the film ends on a moment of triumph. But that is a note that rings hollow, as nearly two decades in, the war on terror is still going on, with no clear end in sight.

To be fair, the dispersed, insidious, leaderless nature of terrorism makes it profoundly difficult to stamp out entirely, and it is accordingly just as difficult to convey the entire meaning of this conflict in a single work of art. 12 Strong does not purport to capture that entirety, nor should we fault it for failing to do so. But it does deserve to be taken to task for bringing up some existential conundrums and declining to thoroughly investigate them. An Afghani ally tells the men of Task Force Dagger, “You will be cowards if you leave, and you will be our enemies if you stay.” And that is really the crux of this issue. But instead of grabbling with that dilemma, 12 Strong leaves it hanging.

At its heart, though, 12 Strong just wants to be a celebration of heroism. And on that score, it is more committed, but not especially capable. It was filmed in New Mexico, and you can feel just how much it is not actually on a real Afghani battlefield. A cheap, careless aesthetic is not exactly the best way to honor these guys. I am sure budgetary constraints made things difficult, but that could have been counteracted with the same ingenuity that Task Force Dagger displayed, but alas, the final product is a bunch of grey dullness with occasional flashes of personality (that personality coming from the fact that these soldiers were forced to ride horses, which most of them are not trained to do, thus resulting in a few solid laughs).

12 Strong is Recommended If You Like: Saving Private Ryan but with straight-to-video production values

Grade: 2 out of 5 Horse Soldiers


This Is a Movie Review: ‘Only the Brave’ Admirably Portrays an Elite Firefighting Crew

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CREDIT: Richard Foreman/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Jennifer Connelly

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Conflagrations and References to Past Drug Use

Release Date: October 20, 2017

It is a frequently stated and generally accepted claim that mothers have the strength to lift a car when their children are in danger. Perhaps we need a similarly illustrative example for people who are naturally drawn to extreme situations in service of others. How else can we explain how relatively few people become firefighters but those who do must necessarily be dangerously committed? It is a little abstract to put in these terms, as the threat is often not immediate and it can be difficult for the human mind to comprehend the scale of the population that is being protected. There is also the fact that we already can explain firefighters’ ability via hardcore training and acclimation exercises. But the ever-present life-threatening nature of this calling earns it a more intense appraisal.

With that in mind, the best way to watch Only the Brave is by appreciating a group of experts performing their jobs exceptionally well under pressure. The film tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite Arizona firefighting crew, and the events leading up to their battle with the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of America’s deadliest wildfires in decades. The two most compelling performances come courtesy of Josh Brolin and Miles Teller. The former is the crew’s head, Eric “Supe” Marsh. We’ve seen his type before: when he isn’t physically out in the forest (which he almost always is), his mind is still there, dreaming about a charging bear drenched in flames. He is the kind of guy whose wife (Jennifer Connelly) must bear hearing clichés like “It’s not easy sharing your man with the fire.” Supe’s characterization comes nowhere reinventing the wheel, but Brolin imbues him with plenty of dignity.

More unique is Teller’s role as Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the crew’s newest recruit, a former addict genuinely trying to improve himself. When introduced, he in no shape to be a firefighter, puking and nearly dehydrating on the first training run. Back home, an ex-girlfriend has just given birth to their daughter, and he is making a genuine effort to earn a place in her life. There are plenty of moments that Brendan could relapse, or abandon his crew, or give up on being a dad. But he always sticks it through, proving his mettle as a man with willpower that is rare and admirable. Dramatic heft is often achieved through fighting past bad decisions, but Only the Brave manages to earn plaudits by continually keeping Brendan on the up-and-up.

Ultimately, I admire the story of Only the Brave more than I enjoy it as a film. Partly, I believe that is due to the narrative’s episodic sensibility, which is an odd choice, considering that it is leading up to a huge climax. Of course, that decision makes a certain sense, in that day-to-day life, no matter how dangerous, is usually unspectacular until the one day that it is unpredictable. This may not be as much of a problem to other viewers, but I do wish the editing had been as compelling as the performances.

Only the Brave is Recommended If You Like: Real Life Bravery

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Fire Bears

This Is a Movie Review: Unforgettable

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults

Director: Denise Di Novi

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: R for Impromptu Bathroom Sex and Bloody Carpets

Release Date: April 21, 2017

When Sia’s “Bird Set Free” played at the end of The Shallows, it was one of the most cathartic cinematic moments of 2016. Domestic-revenge thriller Unforgettable bungles the proper order of things by playing this inspirational ballad over the opening credits. This ode to finding yourself in your own melodies is perfect for that moment when the lead character has gotten through all her hardships and is starting anew. This is actually how we are introduced to Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), who is moving to a new city and getting engaged in the wake of escaping an abusive relationship, but the impact of that exuberance can only be felt mildly without experiencing those troubles alongside Julia.

Strangely enough, though, what Unforgettable most gets right is its pacing. That execution is essential, because otherwise this would just be the latest disposable Fatal Attraction copycat. And at first glance, Unforgettable appears to be totally forgettable. But that may be by design. Julia’s fiancée is conventionally handsome David (Geoff Stults), and David’s ex Tessa (Katherine Heigl) is still in the picture because they share custody of their daughter (Isabella Rice). Tessa clearly wants David back, because of what we assume to be run-of-the-mill jealousy but eventually reveals itself as stone cold, high camp psychopathy.

This might be the most self-aware performance Heigl has ever given. Certainly the script (by Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson) stealthily reveals itself to be playing off of her toxic reputation. Heigl’s string of ’00s rom-coms were alternately insipid and hateful; Unforgettable presupposes that maybe she was just being engineered to be a merciless killer the whole time.

In the question of nature vs. nurture, the latter seems to be the answer in this case, as Tessa’s obsessions are in large part the result of Mommie Dearest/Stepford-style engineering from Mom Cheryl Ladd. Tessa tries to present herself as simply high-strung, but the cracks gradually reveal themselves. Relatively mildly cutting dialogue like “Do you miss when Mommy and Daddy lived together?” eventually gives way to referring to her daughter as “living, breathing, perfect cement” and finally a climax in which she greets someone in bloody pain with, “You’ve handled this very poorly.” Sometimes, you just have to pull that ponytail tight and embrace the demon within.

Unforgettable is Recommended If You Like: Lifetime movies, Carrie, Allison Williams’ performance in Get Out

Grade: 3 out of 5 Knives to the Heart