In character as Marvel’s Thor, Chris Hemsworth swings a mighty hammer and takes on intergalactic foes. (Here he is filming a scene for “Avengers: Infinity War” in Midtown).
In “12 Strong,” in theaters on Friday, he portrays a real superhero.
The movie is based on Doug Stanton’s nonfiction book “Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan.”
In the weeks following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a band of Green Berets known as Task Force Dagger was sent through the mountains of Afghanistan, their mission to liberate Mazar-i-Sharif from Taliban insurgents.
The Taliban had tanks. Our guys were on horseback, no kidding, and yet they prevailed.
“Our team felt we were the team that needed to be in there,” U.S. Army Major (retired) Mark Nutsch, who inspired the character Hemsworth plays, said during a recent interview. “We felt that was the very place we were meant to be.”
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer (retired) Bob Pennington, who now lives in metro Atlanta, inspired the character portrayed by Michael Shannon. He described the surreal intersection of the world’s greatest (and deadliest) technology and punishing, primitive landscape.
“It was like the Jetsons meeting the Flintstones,” Pennington said, exhibiting the dry humor that pops up throughout “12 Strong,” even amid harrowing conditions.
The movie is hard to watch at times, but both Nutsch and Pennington sounded humble about their heroics.
“There were times when I thought, why am I still alive?” said Nutsch, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient who now lives in Kansas. “There were some close calls. We relied on each other. We were going to achieve our mission or die trying.”
The film is unsparing in its depictions of Taliban warlords and the horrors they unleash on their own countrymen as well as their attacks on American troops, but it doesn’t portray all of Afghanistan as our enemy. The nuanced treatment honors the troops’ experience, Nutsch and Pennington said. Some of the movie’s precious few lighter moments, offering needed comic relief, show one of the U.S. soldiers befriending a brave and precocious young Afghan boy, introducing him to lollipops and Skittles and teaching him to swear.
“That brotherhood with another culture” was among Pennington’s takeaways from his time on the mission. “There were times when the Afghans said their prayers, and we said our prayers alongside them.”
The mission was classified at the time, but its members have recently been afforded public acclaim not only in the form of the book and movie but also from the 16 foot bronze statue, known as the “Horse Soldier,” moved in 2016 to a permanent home near the Ground Zero Memorial site in New York City.
Pennington and Nutsch, who are working on a book of their own, hope “12 Strong” may inspire a future generation of military leaders to enlist now. Despite the perennially volatile nature of geopolitics, they are confident America is winning the war on terror.
“Undoubtedly,” Nutsch said. “Has there been a major terror attack on American soil in the past 16 years?”