“12 Strong” is not just a war movie; it’s a story about learning to respect the differences that separate us but also to embrace the qualities that unite us.
Every American adult knows exactly where they were and what they were doing on the terrible morning of September 11, 2001.But until recently, only a small handful knew about the extraordinary events that unfolded in the immediate aftermath.With the country still reeling, 12 brave members of the U.S. Army’s elite Special Forces—known as the Green Berets—left their homes and loved ones to take on a perilous classified mission in the war-torn country of Afghanistan.
These “12 Strong” were chosen to strike the first blow in America’s response to the terrorist attacks. They were not ordered to go. They volunteered to go.
Now the true story of these dozen warriors is being brought to the big screen in the new action drama 12 Strong.
Oscar winner Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts 1 & 2) wrote the screenplay, based on the acclaimed book Horse Soldiers by author Doug Stanton. Award-winning director Nicolai Fuglsig directed the film, which is produced by legendary producer Jerry Bruckheimer (the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Black Hawk Down), together with Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill under their Black Label Media banner (La La Land,” “Sicario).
12 Strong is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when an elite U.S. Special Forces unit, led by their Captain, Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), is selected to be the first U.S. soldiers to provide an offensive response to the unprecedented attacks on U.S. soil.
Leaving their families behind, the team is dropped into the remote, rugged landscape of northern Afghanistan, where they must convince General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies.
In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans— accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the unfamiliar tactics of the Afghan horse soldiers. Despite forming an uneasy bond and growing respect, the new allies face overwhelming odds: vastly outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.
This is a movie where you can rally around both the Americans and the Afghans because, together, they took an epic ride into the mouth of hell.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer offers, “While the American public was still in shock, these men ventured into the unknown, into a situation fraught with danger, to try and settle the score and bring us a victory. They had to leave their wives and kids at a moment’s notice, with both they and their families not knowing where they were going or if they’d ever make it back. The operation was classified for a number of years—most people have never even heard of the story—but these men are true heroes.”
“They were the tip of the spear, the first American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan,” says director Nicolai Fuglsig. “When they arrived, they found themselves outnumbered 5,000 to 1 by the enemy and were constantly at risk of getting captured because of the huge bounty the Taliban had placed on their heads.”
Codenamed Task Force Dagger, the mission was as much diplomatic as it was military.
Fuglsig explains, “This small Special Forces team was to link up with a local warlord named General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leader in Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, in an effort to help him regain control of the region. It was the initial step in America’s fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda after 9/11.”
The Northern Alliance, a fragile coalition of Afghan military leaders, had itself become somewhat fractured in the years since its formation in 1996, but, regardless, there was one thing that united them: their mutual desire to rid their country of the ruthless Taliban.
Bruckheimer calls the mission “unprecedented” for another reason. Despite being among the best-trained soldiers in any branch of the military, the 12 Green Berets were unprepared for one unique challenge: in northern Afghanistan’s treacherously steep, mountainous terrain, the transportation modes of modern warfare had to give way to something more basic. “The only way through the mountain passes is on mules or horses, so they had to adapt,” the producer details. “Only one of them was an expert rider, so the rest had to learn on the run.”
For the first time in 60 years, “Americans were heading into battle on horseback,” Fuglsig observes. “But now they were riding into combat against missile launchers and T-72 tanks. The fact that every member of that Special Forces team made it home alive is nothing short of a miracle.”
The extraordinary story of the Green Berets known as ODA (Operational Detachment Alphas) 595 was first chronicled by author Doug Stanton in the 2009 bestseller Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. However, Bruckheimer recalls, “Even before the book was finished, it was brought to us in galley form. Doug Stanton is a fantastic writer; we loved it right away. I thought it was an amazing true story—intense and heroic, with stunning action. And, remarkably enough, there have been very few films made about the Army’s Special Forces. They are known as ‘the quiet professionals’ because their missions are covert and, for obvious reasons, they rarely publicize their exploits.”
For Stanton, who also served as an executive producer on the film, the prospect of having Jerry Bruckheimer bring his book to life as a major motion picture version of his book seemed like the proverbial match made in heaven. “I’ve been a fan of Jerry’s for a long time,” he affirms. “When I saw ‘Black Hawk Down,’ from the first frame I said, ‘This is a filmmaker who knows how to tell these stories.’ They’re both stories about war, but ultimately, they are about people trying to make a difficult decision at the least opportune moment.”
After developing the project for several years, Bruckheimer Films teamed with Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill at Black Label Media, and Alcon Entertainment’s Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson to bring “12 Strong” to fruition. “Black Label and Alcon were terrific partners for us in producing the movie,” says Chad Oman, President of Jerry Bruckheimer Films and an executive producer on the film. “They were as passionate about the project as we had been since we first read Doug Stanton’s captivating book, agreeing that this was an important, yet largely unknown, story that needed to be told on film. It was a really positive and rewarding collaboration from beginning to end.”
Producer Trent Luckinbill says they appreciated the opportunity to collaborate for the first time with Bruckheimer. “Jerry has had one of the most prolific careers in the industry, so he obviously brings a lot of experience. He’s very engaged, very hands on, and his energy is boundless. We were excited to learn from him.”
“As a company, we respond to incredible true stories, so when we read the script, we were blown away,” producer Molly Smith relates. “It told of what happened in the days after 9/11, which is something people around the world need to know. It’s a tale of courage and heroism of the highest degree.”
In addition to recounting the remarkable story of the first Special Forces team on the ground in Afghanistan, “12 Strong” also recognizes the courage of those left behind. As seen early in the film, their wives and children are also faced with the sacrifices that come with military service…even when you don’t wear a uniform. Smith confirms, “I think it’s very important in a war movie or a film about the military that you not only get to see what it’s like for these men to leave their wives and their children but also the effect it has on their families.”
For the men, there are conflicting emotions in saying goodbye to one family to fight alongside another—their brothers in arms. Fuglsig expands, “Most of these guys had been working closely together for years. When you’re responsible for each other’s lives, the bond that forms is much more that of a brotherhood than a team.”
Ted Tally and Peter Craig had the task of adapting Stanton’s comprehensive non-fiction account into a taut cinematic screenplay.
“When I first came upon the book I was mesmerized by it,” Tally relates. “I’m a history buff, and this was a slice of epic history that I didn’t know about, and I imagine most people don’t know about it either. I was struck by the courage and ingenuity of the American soldiers and of their Afghan allies. And what makes it even more fascinating is that it’s 21st-century warriors in a centuries-old environment and culture. Here were the most highly trained soldiers in the United States, and now they were being forced to completely improvise in ways no one had foreseen.
“One of the things that really moved me about this story was that these Green Berets were all grown men,” Tally continues. “They weren’t fresh-faced boys; they were mature men with wives and kids taking on this risk for their country and eager to do it. They knew what it could mean, they understood what they were sacrificing, but that’s their training. That’s their instinct.”
The script was one of the things that drew Nicolai Fuglsig to the project, which would mark the director’s feature film debut.
Fuglsig recalls, “Jerry sent me the script and I loved the story so much that I immediately went and read the book.”
Bruckheimer says, “Nicolai is an extraordinary visual artist who has won awards for his commercial work. He also has a background as a documentarian and as a photojournalist who has shot all over the world and covered the war in Kosovo. He has a unique eye and we felt fortunate to work with him on his first movie.”
“As a photojournalist, I have seen war firsthand and definitely experienced some very intense moments,” Fuglsig notes. “In a way, all wars are somewhat similar when you consider the element of human tragedy, but I think this film is a very different type of war drama. The Americans come to help the Afghans fight their own battle against the Taliban, so these people from two very different cultures have to learn to work together for a shared cause.”
The director’s vision for the project impressed all of the producers. “Nicolai went out and did an enormous amount of research on the Special Forces who were over there,” says Bruckheimer. “Somehow, he even got his hands on a government report on the operation. So he came in with photographs he’d gathered and offered a fresh point of view on how he would make the movie.”
Producer Thad Luckinbill, who also portrays one of the “12 Strong,” remarks, “The amount of work he had done, the thoughtfulness that had gone into the presentation, the integrity with which he wanted to present this story…it was just unmatched. Visually, he’s such a beautiful shooter, who understands the camera and the frame. But to hear his passion for the project and his understanding of the story, it was a no-brainer. He was the guy.”
While Tally and Craig’s writing adhered closely to the actual events as told in Stanton’s book, as with all screen adaptations, some dramatic license was taken. For example, all but a few names of the ODA-595 team had been changed by the author to protect the soldiers’ identities on what was still a classified mission at the time of writing, and those fictional names were retained in the film. “We were making a feature film and not a documentary,” says Bruckheimer, “but both Ted and Peter expertly found a way to tell the story in a manner that was true to the essence of the events and the characters.”
Nevertheless, from the beginning, verisimilitude became a watchword for the filmmakers, who all wanted to do justice to this true story. They brought in military consultants and also relied on the expertise of Doug Stanton, whom Bruckheimer calls “a great colleague for us throughout the process. One way he helped us was by hooking us up with the Special Forces— men who were actually involved in Task Force Dagger.”
Two of those men were Mark Nutsch, ODA-595 Special Forces Captain and detachment commander on the mission, and his assistant detachment commander and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington. They are the real-life counterparts to the roles played by Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, respectively.
Pennington states that being the tip of the spear after the 9/11 attacks “was our proudest accomplishment ever. To me, it was the pinnacle. We had the primo mission given to us. Now, let’s roll.”
“We’re humbled that a movie has been made about our team’s mission in that pivotal post-9/11 period,” Nutsch adds. “It also means a great deal to our families, who sacrifice so much, that what we accomplished is finally being brought more into public light. And I believe it will mean a lot to the Afghan people because it shows their service in that conflict.”
Acknowledging all his comrades in arms, Nutsch continues, “We are truly honored that ’12 Strong’ captures the spirit of the U.S. Army Special Forces. I think it’s important to show what the power and capabilities of the Green Berets are. They are people who are driven and expect a high standard of themselves and their teammates. We really pushed each other, and we were better for it.”
“This movie superbly portrays a Special Forces team in the battlefield as they should be portrayed,” says Pennington. It really shows some of what we went through, how we adapted to situations and overcame some serious challenges.”
Lieutenant General John Mulholland—then a colonel and the man who selected ODA595 to go into Afghanistan—reveals that one of the team’s primary hurdles was that they’d be heading into the mission essentially blind. He explains, “Before undertaking an Unconventional Warfare mission behind enemy lines to work with indigenous peoples, U.S. Army Special Forces dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy studying the culture, history, political complexities and idiosyncrasies of both the people and the event in order to build the rapport with our indigenous partners that is absolutely essential to achieve the objectives that both they and the United States share. In the wake of the terrible attacks of 9/11, and the need for essentially an immediate response, our teams were required to go in almost overnight and join up with people they’d never had the time to study, never worked with, and whose language they did not speak. In fact, the list of what we didn’t know massively outweighed what we did know. Yet, despite those handicaps, our men did an exceptional job on an extraordinarily dangerous mission to accomplish our goal of defeating and overthrowing the Taliban regime.”
Michael Shannon, who plays Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer, attests that meeting some of their counterparts was a great benefit to the cast. “It meant a lot to us that they did come because if you’re going to tell a story like this, it’s really your responsibility to tell it accurately, so it helped to get their point of view.”
When they visited the set, Nutsch and Pennington had with them something that motivated every member of the cast and crew. Trevante Rhodes, who plays the unit’s Ben Milo, recalls, “They actually brought a piece of the Twin Towers, and that was the most powerful moment on set. We all passed it around and that’s when it really set in. We all remember what happened, but this was tangible, just a shock to your system. It brought all those emotions back, so that was very valuable.”
Trent Luckinbill says, “When the towers fell, each of the Green Beret teams were vying to get into the game. They wanted to be the first guys sent in, regardless of not even knowing exactly what they were getting into—not knowing who they were going to be fighting with or if they could trust them. I think it takes real heroes to step into a situation like that.”
“It was such an honor to meet some of the courageous men who took part in this mission,” adds Smith. “They knew it was their duty to be there. They trained for this and were ready and willing to go fight for their country. The incredible sense of pride they have in being part of the armed forces that guard America is inspiring.”
Fuglsig offers, “This is a movie where you can rally around both the Americans and the Afghans because, together, they took an epic ride into the mouth of hell. If the U.S. Special Forces team didn’t work together with General Dostum and his militia, they would have had no chance against the tens of thousands of Taliban fighters. At its core, “12 Strong” is not just a war movie; it’s a story about learning to respect the differences that separate us but also to embrace the qualities that unite us.”