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Erica Galindo
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Last edited on: January 23, 2018.

Nineteen men attacked our country on 9/11 and 12 were the first to fight back.  Actor Chris Hemsworth plays real Special Ops leader Mark Nutsch and Michael Shannon plays Bob Pennington, Nutsch’s Special Ops assistant in the ‘12 Strong’ true story of 9/11 and a powerful new war drama from Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media and Jerry Bruckheimer Films about the U.S. Army’s Special Forces’ covert infiltration into Taliban-held Afghanistan.  It tells the now-declassified true story of American soldiers sent into the region for this extremely dangerous mission, mere days after 9/11.

Award-winning director Nicolai Fuglsig directed the film, which is produced by legendary producer Jerry Bruckheimer, together with Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill. Oscar winner Ted Tally and Peter Craig wrote the screenplay, based on the acclaimed book Horse Soldiers by author Doug Stanton. 12 Strong, rated R for military violence and rough language, is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when an elite U.S. Special Forces unit, led by their Captain, Mitch Nelson (name change for Mark Nutsch and played by Chris Hemsworth), is selected to be the first U.S. military unit 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 begin the first of daunting, overwhelming challenges when they first 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.

As well as having to overcome mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans, who are 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 as they are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.

Actor Chris Hemsworth plays real Special Ops soldier in '12 Strong.' '12 Strong' true story of 9/11

Actor Chris Hemsworth plays real Special Ops soldier in ’12 Strong.’ Photo Courtesy Warner Brothers

Although most American adults know exactly where they were and what they were doing on the terrible morning of September 11, 2001, only a small handful have known 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 as they volunteered to take on a perilous classified mission in the war-torn country of Afghanistan.  These 12 Strong were selected to strike the first blow in America’s response to the terrorist attacks. They were not ordered to go.  They volunteered to go and were chosen with the support of their commanding officers.

Now audiences can see the true story of these dozen warriors on the big screen in the new action drama 12 Strong.  Producer Jerry Bruckheimer says, “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.”

12 Strong director Nicolai Fuglsig says, “They were the tip of the spear, the first American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.  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.”

Award-winning actor Michael Shannon ('The Shape of Water') portrays Hal Spencer in '12 Strong.' '12 Strong' true story of 9/11

Award-winning actor Michael Shannon portrays Hal Spencer in ’12 Strong.’ Photo Courtesy Warner Brothers

The mission, codenamed Task Force Dagger, 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 the one thing that united them was their mutual desire to rid their country of the ruthless, cruel Taliban.

Chris Hemsworth plays Captain Mitch Nelson (name change for Mark Nutsch), the leader of the Special Forces team, and notes, “These Green Berets weren’t there as occupiers; they were there to assist the Afghan people who had been fighting for their freedom.  Without much prior intel, they had to come in and earn the trust of Dostum and his men or they could never have accomplished their mission.  What I loved about this story was it was a chance to show Americans working side-by-side with the Afghan people to fight a common enemy.”

Bruckheimer calls the mission “unprecedented” because despite being among the best-trained soldiers in any branch of the military, the 12 Green Berets were unprepared for the unique challenge of working in northern Afghanistan’s treacherously steep, mountainous terrain with Afghan modes of transportation. He says, “The only way through the mountain passes is on mules or horses, so they had to adapt…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,” director 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.”

Mark Nutsch (left) and Bob Pennington (right), retired horse soldiers, are depicted in '12 Strong.' '12 Strong' true story of 9/11

Real-life retired horse soldiers, Mark Nutsch (left) and Bob Pennington (right) are depicted in the movie ’12 Strong.’ Photo Courtesy Dr. David Howard.

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.  Producer 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.”

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.  Wives and children are also faced with the sacrifices that come with military service…even when you don’t wear a uniform.

'12 Strong' tells the remarkable true story of America's response to 9/11. '12 Strong' true story of 9/11

’12 Strong’ tells the remarkable true story of America’s response to 9/11. Photo Courtesy Warner Brothers

At every stage, Green Berets are 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.  Tally relates, “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…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.”

'12 Strong' true story of 9/11

’12 Strong’ movie stars Chris Hemsworth (‘Thor’). Photo Courtesy Warner Brothers

Bruckheimer says of the director, “Nicolai is an extraordinary visual artist… 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.”

Fuglsig says, “As a photojournalist, I have seen war firsthand and definitely experienced some very intense moments…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.”

Director Fuglsig’s vision and approach 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.”

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.”

“Verisimilitude” was a watchword for the filmmakers, who all wanted to do justice to this true story.  They brought in military consultants, including real-life leaders Nutsch and Pennington.

Mark Nutsch, ODA-595 Special Forces Captain and detachment commander on the mission, and his assistant detachment commander and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington who are the real-life counterparts to the roles played by Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon. 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.”

12 Strong' true story of 9/11

The new film ’12 Strong’ depicts the true of Special Ops soldiers in Afghanistan following 9/11. Photo Courtesy Warner Brothers

“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 says, “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.”

Horse soldiers responded to the 9/11 attacks by infiltrating Afghanistan. 12 Strong' true story of 9/11

Horse soldiers responded to the 9/11 attacks by infiltrating Afghanistan. Photo Courtesy Warner Brothers

“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.”
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…“

SCH Editor At Large Dr. Diane Howard with real-life retired horse soldier Bob Pennington at the premiere of '12 Strong.'

SCH Editor At Large Dr. Diane Howard with real-life retired horse soldier Bob Pennington at the premiere of ’12 Strong.’ Photo Courtesy Dr. David Howard





To learn more about this author, please visit Dr. Diane Howard

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