Fahim Fazli knew something was different when last January, he went to work.
It had been something about the smell of horse shit, turning uproar of helicopter engines and oozing sweat and kicked-up dirt combined just like a misfit symphony with the remote rocky mountain terrain.
The people walking around with throwback uniforms and throwback firearms that advised him of his throwback life of war and loss — that the war itself, but not a throwback at all, but one that continues even today as Hollywood delivers another neatly packaged film that simplifies the complexities of this international war on terror.
“To be truthful with you. I thought I had been back in the real war,” Fazli told The Daily Beast about his time playing with a Northern Alliance commander whilst 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 prominent supporting actors such as Michael Pea, William Fichtner and Rob Riggle.
The audience follows a small set of U.S. Army Green Berets, codenamed Operational Detachment Alpha-595, (played by Hemsworth, Shannon, and Pea) in Afghanistan. Since they ride into battle on horseback amid the backdrop of October 27, the group of commandos become America’s first reaction in the war on terror.
At the moment, the U.S. military had no plans ready for operations in Afghanistan — three-letter agencies such as 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 after the attacks with the U.S. looking for someone to fight.
U.S. officials would finally send in associates of the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group — soldiers especially trained in guerrilla and unconventional warfare.
The idea was to link up with CIA officers on the ground and start to train, advise, and help the Northern Alliance, a ragtag group of Afghan military leaders that sought to eliminate the Taliban, the team who gave refuge to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Hemsworth (who plays Army Capt. Mitch Nelson) is forced to utilize Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum — performed by Homeland alum Navid Negahban — in capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, as their personalities go back and forth like two cops from different generations as they call in airstrikes from American bombers on crucial military targets controlled by the Taliban.
For all of the hype surrounding the movie, 12 Strong will probably not become the Saving Private Ryan to get moviegoers or post-9/11 military specialists, nor can it receive the same sort of backlash that American Sniper got for shooting artistic liberties for the reasons the U.S. went to Iraq.
The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movie, that 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 tide of Navy SEAL Team Six television series — watch CBS and The History Channel.
The complexities of the present war on terror as well as the politics that push it do not fit neatly into the a variety of feature film act structures such as 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 merely a chapter plunked out of this 17-year-old war that continues to age.
But despite 12 Strong‘s cliche war scenes of passing letters and “heart of a warrior” talks combined with a sort of Michael Bay strategy to combat scenes and explosions, the movie surprisingly gets a great deal of things right because it attempts to leap the audience back to if the smoke was still billowing out from the dust and indulged in lower Manhattan after terrorists slammed commercial jetliners in buildings of American creativity and strength.
The attention to small details within Afghan culture are striking –child soldiers fighting for the origin and the English-Pashtun language barrier rings true, alongside a tragic spectacle that looks ripped from the Taliban history novels, showing that the plight of Afghans and the Taliban’s proclivity to eliminate education from their culture as a form of oppression.
Military veterans tend to have the ability to pick apart a movie within seconds if tactics, equipment and gear are somewhat askew or horrendously incorrect, however 12 Strong appears to be on strong ground due to a cadre of military technical advisers using a special operations background.
However, what stands out the most about 12 Strong from additional post-9/11 war films is what gave Fazli the feeling that something was different.
“I gave Jerry Bruckheimer and Chris Hemsworth a hug and I kissed him and our manager…because eventually we’ve got a movie where we [Muslims] are not a terrible people,” Fazli said. “Finally a movie that reveals Afghan bravery against al-Qaeda and the tyranny of the Taliban.”
“It's something that’s very personal to me…I watched 9/11. I fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Soviets when they invaded. This movie is our background, both Afghan and American, a lesson to our children. It is about these hijackers and manipulating fundamentalists in Afghanistan perverting our country and faith.”
Born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, the country is remembered by Fazli at peace and in war, first with the Russians.
Fazli will assist the CIA spread propaganda before fleeing to California, where he started a acting profession and became a naturalized citizen.
Since 9/11, Fazli has 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 combat the Taliban alongside U.S. Marines between 2009 and 2010, serving as an interpreter for 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — leaving his acting profession.
“Finally I get to play a good guy,” said Fazli laughing. “It's a fantastic feeling. I had been in real war in southern Helmand province fighting the Taliban, and now I'm in the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban.”
Fazli wasn’t the only celebrity to have art imitate life. Actor and comedian Rob Riggle, famous for his time on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and prosperity of recent comedy films, was connected to the unit when operating in the U.S. Marine Corps, and ironically plays his old boss in the movie. Riggle retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel with 23 years of service, earning ribbons and 22 medals over.
“I reported directly to Lieutenant Colonel Max Bowers, I briefed him in the morning and I briefed him every day. I worked and lived with these men. . .there were moments on this movie I was like, ‘Wow, this seems just like #x27 & I;m back, you know, doing doing my job,”’ Riggle told The Daily Beast. “When you know somebody personally, you wish to do the best that you can.”
“We wanted to tell the story right. We wanted it to be accurate and also to honor their service and the risk that they chose,” Riggle said.