The movie 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers is based on author Doug Stanton‘s book Horse Soldiers, which tells the story of U.S. Special Forces and CIA paramilitary officers sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, and Michael Peña, 12 Strong follows the group of Task Force Dagger who is sent to Afghanistan to fight with General Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Afghanistan Northern Alliance and dispatched to a mountainous region of Afghanistan to conduct unconventional warfare against the Taliban forces who had occupied the region.
Hemsworth, (best known for playing Thor, the hammer-wielding god of thunder) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, a character inspired by real life Green Beret commander Mark Nutsch who led the covert, horse-mounted mission that saw his 14-man Green Beret team unite with his Afghan allies’ horsemen to break out of the Hindu Kush mountains, seize a symbolic ancient shrine, and overthrow the Taliban regime. Nelson befriends and gains the trust of General Dostum (played by Navid Nagahban) and the General offered the Green Beret Special Forces team crucial “hooves on the ground” support.
According to the declassified story, General Dostum asked his American allies of what sort of help they could provide to destroy the Taliban forces blocking their exit from the mountains. It was at this time that Mark Nutsch taught them of the satellite-guided bombs. Nutsch and the Green Berets acted as ground spotters to call in precision strikes from giant B-52s flying high overhead coming from aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean. As the bombs fell on Taliban tanks and positions, General Dostum’s men charged through the bomb smoke on horseback wiping out the remaining Taliban.
The film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who has given us such classics as Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, and Armageddon, and co-produced with Alcon Entertainment and Black Label Media. Bruckheimer presents us with a riveting story in our recent history that many Americans might not know about. He also jam-packs 12 Strong with big-screen military fireworks that he is all too well known for. This is where we lose some key depth of storytelling and character development for more intricate action sequences and extravagant explosions on a massive scale.
Overall, the movie acts as tribute to soldiers whose contributions went unheralded for years. Even though it doesn’t have the strong emotional connection of other war movies such as Black Hawk Down or Hacksaw Ridge, this one is still a remarkable true story of great heroism that we should all keep in our memory and be grateful for the real life heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice and risked their lives for our American freedoms.
Have you seen ’12 Strong’? Well, what did you think?
Written/Directed By: Ang Lee Cast: Joe Alwyn, Mackenzie Leigh, Steve Martin, Garrett Hedlund Runtime: 1 hr 53 minutes
It is frustrating when a film has all the ingredients to be brilliant but ends up just a good movie. The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) is an original and painfully satirical study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also a film limited by all-too-obvious visual messages and clichéd one-liners that reduce a possible artwork to an emotionally tame and uneven film.
The story unfolds over a single day in America with flashbacks to a live combat incident in Iraq. A news clip goes viral when young army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is filmed trying to save the life of his sergeant. His Bravo squad are celebrated as heroes and given a two-week promotional tour across America to boost dwindling support for the war. The tour highlight is an appearance in a glitzy halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. They are ushered around like a troupe of performing monkeys with little regard for what they have been through or how glaring theatrics might affect soldiers coming straight out of battle. Meanwhile, their tour guide is trying to stitch up a film deal with the tightwad team owner (played by Steve Martin) as virgin Billy falls for a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) who loves war heroes.
The storyline bears little resemblance to the typical war genre film, but this one is not about guns, bombs and bodies. Filmed in ultra-high definition with extensive shallow depth of field, Billy and the squad are often in pin-sharp focus against soft backgrounds, a technique that keeps them in a separate plane of existence to the crassly insensitive stage onto which they have been thrust. The surreal stadium scenes are a spectacular but clichéd message about commodity wars for a public wanting to ‘make America great again’. It is hard not to empathise with Billy or feel his disorientation as he watches prancing cheerleaders and hears musical fireworks exploding all around him while he struggles with flashbacks of hand-to-hand combat in the midst of a mortar firestorm.
There is much to commend in this film. Young Joe Alwyn plays a complex role with nuance beyond his experience. The cinematography is vivid (almost to the point of distraction), and the pace and casting is strong (although comic Steve Martin seems out of place). A lighter directorial hand may have produced a more naturally flowing story without the corny melodrama and trite one-liners like “that day no longer belongs to you…its America’s story now” or “we’re a nation of children who fight in other countries to grow up”. But you will long remember that stadium extravaganza as an echo-chamber for the horrors of PTSD. For that alone, this film is worth seeing.
Richard Alaba, PhD CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Have you seen ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’? Well, what did you think?
Every year Twin Cities Film Fest selects a social cause to bring to light and this year the subject of the Changemaker series is veteran support. Five powerful films paint a picture of what our vets face post-combat and foster important discussions around how to better serve those who’ve given us their all, which starts with BLOOD STRIPE.
A female Marine veteran, battling unseen wounds from her recent service in Afghanistan, flees her suburban life in search of solace and escape in the North Woods.
Directed by: Remy Auberjonois Written by: Remy Auberjonois & Kate Nowlin Runtime: 87 min Cast: Kate Nowlin, Rene Auberjonois, Rusty Schwimmer, Tom Lipinski, Kristen Gregerson
Additional TCFF screening:
October 28 | 3:00 pm
I had the honor to speak to both the director Remy Auberjonois and lead actress Kate Nowlin, who also co-wrote the film. I interviewed them separately within the span of a couple of weeks. They are both so wonderful to talk to, I’m so inspired by their amazing talents, humility and generous spirits. I’m so thrilled to see the success of ‘Blood Stripe’, winning the Best Fiction Award at L.A. Film Festival is just the beginning. It couldn’t happen to two nicer people!
Q: What inspired you to that story about PTSD. Is that a personal thing for you is that something that somehow we come across something and then it’s like oh I want to make a story about this.
Remy:Oddly enough, the story was an organic outgrowth from the location in a way. We sort of decided to make a movie, first of all. Then we decided to make a movie on Lake Vermilion and then we were looking around to think about a story that we could tell that could feature Kate in a central role because I knew that I would have her full commitment and she would work all day every day. And I know what a wonderful actor she is. And and in doing that and figuring out what that character could be, we came upon the fact that there are a lot of veterans in that area. Once that opened up for us, then the story sort of took shape. There was been a tremendous amount of a lot of awareness about moral injury, about PTS, about veterans suicide and you know, it was sort of an undeniable aspect and military sexual trauma… there was an undeniable story where we felt that there was room to tell. It also appealed to me in the sense that I saw ways in which he could use the sort of tropes of a thriller film to get inside a sort of paranoid mindset. You know we’re not paranoid but hyper alert. So that aspect appealed to me as there are a lot of movies like that that I’ve really liked. Those that you know create a real sense of unease, and we wanted to try to get inside that.
I felt like the tools of both movies were a useful way to shed some light on that. And because we’ve seen a lot of documentary and we’ve read a lot about this thing that people call PTS or PTSD, we thought that telling a narrative story about it making a dramatic narrative feature about it was another way to contribute to that conversation, to that awareness. We were hardly aware of it except as regular consumers of news, but when we started looking into that character and things that that character might be burdened with, we started to really understand the scope of the really sort of epidemic of this thing. We thought ‘oh yeah this is something that we want to understand more about and we feel like the audience could as well.’
Q: I think the fact that you are focusing on a female combat vet specifically sort of adds another layer of novelty to your film too, because there are so few meaty roles for women as it is. I know that’s what appealed to me immediately, I mean aside from the military aspect of it. And I’m sure it appeals to others as well.
Remy:Yeah, you know I’m a male filmmaker, and for me I didn’t really see a difference. I worked with a very high profile wonderful actress. At one point she was telling us, she was talking to a filmmaker friend of hers: ‘just write the part for a man and I’ll play it.’ And Kate and I in approaching this film, we wrote the part just for a person. It’s complicated… you know she does things that you don’t see women doing a lot of, but that women do. She’s chopping wood, she’s mowing the lawn, etc. She has a husband and then she has the potential connection with another man. She’d get to fight, you know. Not to give things away, but you know, we just wrote it for a good complex character for Kate who is a powerful, physically very strong woman and an emotionally deep actor.
Q: What a great combination, yeah. One of the reviews I read was from Variety, and the reviewer said that it’s kind of rare that you’re not using the method of flashback in this. And so narratively was that something that’s deliberate that you want the story to be in present but of course implies that something has happened in the past?
Remy:Yes. You know it’s interesting it was something that was unintentional in some ways and then became very important to us, as we’re going ahead. We’re going we actually have written an event that happened in the past and that was a factor of time and money that we didn’t get to shoot it. It was something that could happen in a totally discreet location. So we kept it out of our principal photography because our budgetary and time constraints were such that we couldn’t get that, in a way that satisfied me.
And then as we were looking at the footage and telling the story and cutting it, it really felt that there were there so much thing unsaid, I mean this is not a dialogue-heavy movie. Having that event felt like it would be incredibly limiting to what the audience’s understanding could be. I’ve since spoken to someone who made a comment about that very fact and said they appreciated that [the trauma] wasn’t pinpointed to one event. Kate was very interested in these people who were exposed to war time, in a foreign country for a year or 18 months, you know that kind of heightened experience is ongoing, extended… so what is that like. So to sort of narrow it down to say it was this one thing that created this condition is very limiting. There’s lots of things. Her relationship with a man in the film is very fraught. Maybe there was something there. She has some physical impact from the war that she carries. Maybe it’s that. We didn’t want to limit it. Plus, to shoot that [scene], it’s as if we’re trying to be a different kind of movie than we were. I had a scene that I could do that I could accomplish. We had it written and I knew how I was going to shoot it. But I eventually thought, you know Hollywood has made war movies. We’ve seen The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, we’ve seen a lot of great depictions of these wars and wars in general. Let’s trust that the audience has these associations and we’ll bring them in with that.
Q: I think that’s what they appreciate this reviewer appreciate. It’s like they just you know don’t spoon feed too much. You don’t want it to challenge the audience.
Remy:Yes, we wanted to respect and challenge our audience. I think some people find that infuriating because they want to be told something. And I think some people have really appreciated it. We had a guy on one of our screenings, he said I felt so smart watching this movie because I kept on being forced to make connections, to connect the dots. As a movie goer, I’m usually quite a head of a particular film. I don’t know that anybody is surprised by what happens in our movie, in terms of the sort of outcome insofar as you really know what the outcome is. And you don’t, we don’t make it very explicit.
Q: For this film, did you talk to anybody like from the military field to make sure you get certain things right?
Remy:You know we did a lot of reading, we did a lot of watching. We also have a female Marine veteran on set with us. But we had already written the script by then and she was great in terms of validating a lot of the right thing. I sent it to that vet but because we weren’t shooting the war. It was a creative, imaginative exploration of the thing. So we watched some wonderful documentaries like the film Lioness, The Invisible War to see stories about female marines. A lot of really wonderful books, there’s one by Sebastian Junger called War. But we wanted to sort of imaginatively take the hallmarks and the symptoms and the sort of generalized story of what those people experience and then imagine it into our location and our story. We wanted it to feel authentic and we’ve been very gratified. You know, Kate spent four months in physical training for the film. We wanted to have a sense of authenticity but we also wanted to not be telling a certain story. And hopefully that that approach is the thing that makes [the subject] a little bit more universal.
Q: I see. It’s a character driven piece so it’s not about a specific event.
Remy:Exactly. It’s a lot about the performance, about [Kate’s] understanding of it. There’s some of her own experience which she was able to bring to [the role], but she’s also just a very skilled actress and has a lot of technique.
Q: Last question. Is directing something you want to keep doing in the future?
Remy: Yeah I would love to get the opportunity to do it again. I have a couple of different projects in the beginning of story development and we’ll see which one I can get more traction on. I’m very much hoping to direct it again before too long. Maybe another film, and I’d love to direct episodic television actually. There’s a lot of exciting, wonderful thing happening in that medium, but it’s a difficult thing to get into. It’s hard to get a movie made, but at least it’s a discrete thing and in some ways it’s up to you.
Q: Yeah that’s true, but at the same time now it seems like there’s a blending between TV and films now, it’s not a big divide like was before. Lots of TV directors doing major, big-budget films and the other way around.
Remy:Yeah, who knows. We’ll see where it takes me.
Q: What I got from Remy’s was that the story grew organically from the location in Lake Vermilion. So I’m just curious how do you approach that role of the female Marine. I mean do you have any military experience or or was there any research. Do you have to do more to prepare?
Kate:Oh god no, no military experience before. Tremendous research.
Q: How long did it take you to do that? I mean did you have somebody on set?
Kate: I feel like I’m still doing research. I started when we started writing in October and we were shooting in August. I was doing research the whole, the whole time we were writing and learning about the subject matter, which evolved organically. Once we just decided on the subject matter, we felt obviously a real responsibility to this type of story, as we would to really any story. But this one was, we realized it was a large undertaking and something I knew nothing about, from a strictly military standpoint. In terms of dedication and exploration of her strength and her vulnerability, and just being a human being, I think there’s ways in which we can all relate. So the military part, I did my homework and then eventually yes I met I spoke to a number of servicemen and women. There’s one in particular, a woman named Amber Patton who’s a Marine herself.
Q: Is her last name spelled like the famous general?
Kate:Yes Patton, like the general. She’s a Marine veteran, USMC got her in. And she was on site. We met here in Minnesota and then we offered her I said ‘would you read the script and consult with us?’ We had some questions and we talked about some story points, and then I said ‘what are you up to this summer?’ As she was interested to get more into it. I mean she was in the film industry but she wanted to keep working on that, and so we said if you want a job, we’d love to have you on our set as a production assistant. So she came on as a production assistant but obviously she served as a consultant. She just was like my right hand she was, an assistant to me and in many ways and in the creation of the story.
Q: That’s cool because you’d want to make sure that the story is truthful and accurate and she’d have the experience.
Kate:Well there were there were things that we could research, but there were very practical things about like how the uniform is worn, things like that. She’s been an invaluable part of the process, and she’s still you know, we’re still close and and she was an invaluable part of the team.
Q: As for Lake Vermilion, it seems that you both wanted to shoot the film there and it works because there’s a lot of veterans there, so that makes sense.
Kate:Yes, there’s a tremendous amount of veterans. There’s a woman in the town, when we were just considering that idea [of filming at Lake Vermilion], she had just been named soldier of the year by Army Times in Cook Minnesota. And so we kind of thought… even though we didn’t tell her story but we wanted to give a little nod to keep moving in that direction.
Q: Remy mentioned that you both wanted to add to the conversation about the condition of PTSD. Tell us a bit more about that.
Kate:We want to add to the conversation about the traumatic aspect, but also really more about the female soldier, the female Marine. It’s rarely depicted even though they make up about 15 percent of our military, 20 percent of our reserves. So they should be more represented. I think as we were writing there was this great New York Times op-ed piece saying why aren’t we telling the story [of female soldiers] in film. So we were like, ‘we’re writing something, we’re doing our part, we’re trying to do our part!’ So it was so interesting how it evolved, but yes we were trying to add to a conversation about a lot of things… women in media, how women are portrayed in the media. The female fighter, the female warrior, representing them, representing veterans issues, across the board. You know, so we kept sort of packing the bag.
Q: That’s great. I just think female driven narrative is still rare, which you would think by 2016 that’s not the case. But yet it is. That is why on my blog I always champion female-driven stories, especially independent stories. I mean if it’s something like Wonder Woman or whatever, those already get the studio backing, but the smaller stuff I really want to support. So I’m grateful you are working on this.
Kate:Yes me, too. You know, it wasn’t our intention, conscious intention when we started. I mean we know Romney wants to direct and I was a resource of his. But it evolved into that and it became a very significant to us too. And I was aware that there was a lack, just in the scripts that I was being presented or the roles that I would read. I was just like ‘can we create someone full-fledged, someone who’s fully-dimensional… who happens to be a Marine.
Q: I was just wondering as I was reading the cast list. Your character is described only as Our Sergeant. Is it deliberate that there’s no specific name given to your character?
Kate:Yeah it is. It is deliberate. We want her to stand in for a lot of people like her, to be able to sort of let the audience project a lot onto her. Honestly, creatively, as we’re working the name just never came. We never had a name and it always just felt like that there’s a sort of space around her character so people could project whatever they want to. Not necessarily a name but that she is, in some ways, unaccounted for and that she’s nameless.
Q: So the fact that she is nameless is almost a message in itself.
Kate:I think so yeah I think so. And we actually, there was one point when we made her uniform. So on the one hand she’s standing in for someone’s wife, sister, daughter, we keep that open. Once you’re in the military and you have a title, that’s an important part of the identity. That comes first, in that mindset you’re committing your life, you know, to serving your country and then that is an important part of the identity. So that felt like that was going to be an important part, maybe more important than the personal identification. So when we she was in uniform at one point we created a name tag that we chose to be nameless in Norwegian because I’m Scandinavian and there’s a lot of Scandinavian people in Northen Minnesota. At one point we did choose a name. So it was Navnløs, which is Norwegian for nameless.
Q: Now this question, it’s up to you whether you want to speak to this or not but given the subject matter, I was wondering if you have dealt with something similar to your character and whether that impact your approach to the role or not.
Kate:No I really haven’t. Not to that degree. But I think as we’ve said, trauma is a universal experience. It doesn’t have to be military-related. So I can understand it, but no, I have not dealt with it, nowhere near anything she had going through. It’s interesting because I’ve been asked that question a lot and I think that. I guess my answer is no, but I understand what I understand about struggle. It’s my job to be able to portray someone who’s different than I am. That I have to investigate and find my way in the way that I can to create something in an authentic way. I think there are universal things that we know and that we share and feel as human beings and that’s my job to explore that. Because I was writing her, co-writing and co-creating her, I was able to track her so to speak.
Q: Cool. So how was that process when you’re writing. Co-writing with Remy. I mean how do you do that division work goes?
Kate:I loved the writing. We really just sat across the table from each other and sort of plotted things out. Once we got off the note cards you know at first we put everything on no cards and then we sort of sat down. We each had a computer in front of us and we talk through scenes, we created dialogue. I would sort of think about her voice when she did speak. Remy was really good at writing the sort of what we saw, the breakdown the scenes. The emotional journey, in some ways was hard to do because it was all brand new. And because we were doing it in such a really a relatively short period of time. it’s hard to kind of understand or quantify what that experience was. We were just sitting down every day for three hours doing what we could.
Q: How about the physical training. I mean you kind of have to bulk up a bit don’t you? I mean you probably already are a fitness enthusiast.
Kate:Yes I’m naturally athletic. Being forced to play sports growing up and I was a dancer as a kid and all of that. And then of course in graduate school or whatever you do a lot of movement training and stuff. But no, I work from probably about three and a half months, not a tremendous period of time but I work six days a week. I worked with a trainer once a week starting in May, June, July, August, so about three and a half months. That’s on how to get into the role, that’s a mindset. I had to transform my metabolism, my metabolic system. I was inspired by how strong they are and the rigors that they go through in order to become a Marine. And so I knew I had to do something I hadn’t done before and get a kind of mental toughness and physical strength also to set an example, to represent how strong these women are. I just want to create a different portrait of a female in the film. Something we don’t get to see very often.
Q: So now that you’ve written a film that you start in, what’s next for you? Do you want to keep doing it, being a content creator on top of being an actress?
A: Absolutely. Oh that’s you can’t go back. I feel like it’s it’s a hard thing to come back from once you start oncw you start making your own stuff. It’s more challenging in ways but you get to say more… it’s a much more dimensional creative space and I find that incredibly gratifying. I have never been happier from an artistic point of view as when I was making this thing, as we’ve been making this thing. As hard as it’s been, it’s so fulfilling so. And I found that over the course of it that I have things I’d like to say. I really enjoy the writing. Not like a soapbox, but I think that there are I think that there’s room for all sorts of stories and I’m drawn to what I’m drawn to. I like the research, I like immersing myself in new world from scratch.
THANK YOU so much Remy & Kate for chatting with me about Blood Stripe!
Hope you enjoy the interview! If you’ve seen Blood Stripe, I’d love to hear what you think!