Fahim Fazli knew something was different when he went to work last January.
It was something about the smell of horse shit, oozing sweat and kicked-up dirt blended together like a misfit symphony with the remote rugged mountain terrain and spinning uproar of helicopter engines whining in the distance.
The people walking around with throwback uniforms and throwback guns that reminded him of his throwback life of war and loss — the war itself, however, not a throwback at all, but one that continues even today as Hollywood delivers another neatly packaged film that simplifies the complexities of the global war on terror.
“To be honest with you. I thought I was back in the real war,” Fazli told The Daily Beast about his time playing a Northern Alliance commander while filming director Nicolai Fuglsig’s new movie 12 Strong in New Mexico.
The movie, which premiered nationwide on Friday, stars Australian actor Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame, alongside two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, with a sprinkling of notable supporting actors like Michael Peña, William Fichtner and Rob Riggle.
The audience follows a small group of U.S. Army Green Berets, codenamed Operational Detachment Alpha-595, (played by Hemsworth, Shannon, and Peña) in Afghanistan. The team of commandos become America’s first response in the war on terror as they ride into battle on horseback amid the backdrop of October 2001.
At the time, the U.S. military had no plans prepared for operations in Afghanistan — three-letter agencies like the NSA, FBI and CIA were still piecing together the magnitude of the intelligence failure that led to September 11, but calls for retaliation were amplified as military recruiting numbers surged in the days following the attacks with the U.S. looking for someone to fight.
U.S. officials would ultimately send in members of the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group — soldiers specifically trained in guerrilla and unconventional warfare.
The idea was to link up with CIA officers on the ground and start to train, advise, and assist the Northern Alliance, a ragtag group of Afghan military leaders that sought to eradicate the Taliban, the group who gave refuge to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Hemsworth (who plays Army Capt. Mitch Nelson) is forced to work with Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum — played by Homeland alum Navid Negahban — in capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, as their characters go back and forth like two cops from different generations as they call in airstrikes from American bombers on key military targets controlled by the Taliban.
For all the hype surrounding the film, 12 Strong will probably not become the Saving Private Ryan for moviegoers or post-9/11 military veterans, nor will it receive the same type of backlash that American Sniper got for taking artistic liberties for the reasons the U.S. went into Iraq.
The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film, which markets itself as “the declassified true story of the horse soldiers,” which many veterans have pointed out is not entirely accurate, will become a rank-and-file modern day war movie that stands next to Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor or perhaps the wave of Navy SEAL Team Six television shows — see CBS and The History Channel.
The complexities of the current war on terror and the politics that drive it do not fit neatly into the various feature film act structures like it did so poignantly with Saving Private Ryan — it’s important to remember that 12 Strong is a fictionalized version of actual events, and the movie is simply a chapter plunked out of the 17-year-old war that continues to age.
However, despite 12 Strong’s cliche war scenes of death letters and “heart of a warrior” talks coupled with a sort of Michael Bay approach to combat scenes and explosions, the film surprisingly gets a lot of things right as it attempts to jump the audience back to when the smoke was still billowing out from the dust and rumble in lower Manhattan after terrorists slammed commercial jetliners into buildings of American ingenuity and strength.
The attention to small details within Afghan culture are most impressive —child soldiers fighting for the cause and the English-Pashtun language barrier rings true, alongside a heartbreaking scene that seems ripped from the Taliban history books, showing the plight of Afghans and the Taliban’s proclivity to eradicate education from their society as a form of oppression.
Military veterans tend to be able to pick apart a movie within seconds if tactics, gear and equipment are askew or horrendously inaccurate, but 12 Strong seems to be on solid ground thanks to a cadre of military technical advisors with a special operations background.
But what stands out the most about 12 Strong from other post-9/11 war movies is what gave Fazli the feeling that something was different.
“I gave Jerry Bruckheimer and Chris Hemsworth a hug and I thanked him, and our director…because finally we have a movie where we [Muslims] are not a bad people,” Fazli said. “Finally a movie that shows Afghan bravery against al-Qaeda and the tyranny of the Taliban.”
“It's something that’s very personal to me…I witnessed 9/11. I fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Soviets when they invaded. This movie is our history, both American and Afghan, a lesson for our children. It’s about these hijackers and manipulating fundamentalists in Afghanistan perverting our country and religion.”
Born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, Fazli remembers the country at peace and at war, first with the Russians.
Fazli would help the CIA spread propaganda against the former USSR before fleeing to southern California, where he became a naturalized citizen and eventually began a acting career.
Since 9/11, Fazli has usually been typecast as the Muslim terrorist torturing Jack Bauer in 24 or beating up Tony Stark in Iron Man.
After 30 years of being away from Afghanistan, Fazli returned to fight the Taliban alongside U.S. Marines between 2009 and 2010, serving as an interpreter for 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — leaving behind his acting career.
“Finally, I get to play a good guy,” said Fazli laughing. “It's a great feeling. I was in real war in southern Helmand province fighting the Taliban, and now I'm in the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban.”
Fazli was not the only actor to have art imitate life. Actor and comedian Rob Riggle, best known for his time on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and abundance of recent comedy movies, was attached to the unit while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, and ironically plays his old boss in the film. Riggle retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel with 23 years of service, earning over 22 medals and ribbons.
“I reported directly to Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers, I briefed him in the morning and I briefed him every evening. I lived and worked with these guys...there were moments on this film that I was like, ‘Wow, this feels like I'm back, you know, doing doing my old job,’” Riggle told The Daily Beast. “When you know someone personally, you want to do the best you can.”
“We wanted to tell the story right. We wanted it to be accurate and to honor their service and the risk they took,” Riggle said.
In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.”
If anything, 12 Strong should be given some credit for highlighting America’s newest generation of combat veterans — reminding us of what we held dear in the aftermath of 9/11 — back when we were not so distracted by social media and reality shows.
But most importantly, 12 Strong shows “chapter one” of a Nation that has been in a constant state of war for 17-years and the toll it can have on the small slice of Americans who bear the brunt of warfare, and those for whom the wars are only, as Gates said, “an abstraction.”