Some brief opening text lays out the setting for director Harald Zwart’s astounding “The 12th Man”. Nazi Germany occupied Norway on April 9, 1940. Three years later in Scotland British forces trained Norwegian soldiers to carry out sabotage missions in their homeland. On March 24, 1943 twelve Norwegian resistance fighters were sent to target German airfields in Operation Martin Red. Only one would come back alive.
This Norwegian historical thriller is based on the extraordinary true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of that doomed operation. The film is based on a biography by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott. It’s not the first movie based on a book of Baalsrud’s life. The 1957 drama “Nine Lives” received an Oscar nomination and remains a highly regarded picture.
The grueling role of Baalsrud is played by Thomas Gullestad. Zwart starts quickly with Baalsrud and his team crawling out of the icy arctic waters onto the northern shores of Norway amid a hail of bullets. We learn that a costly mistake blew their cover and a German vessel attacks as they approach the mainland. Forced to scuttle their shot-up fishing boat, the twelve struggle ashore where German troops await them. Eleven are captured, Baalsrud escapes.
One of the first things I noticed was Zwart and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen’s striking perspectives. Their camera placements and the fluidity of its movements offer one penetrating visual after another. Then you have the shots of the stunning Norwegian landscapes which in context are both beautiful and ominous. These images add a menacing dimension as the wounded and battered Baalsrud trudges through the frigid snow and ice.
“The 12th Man” spotlights Jan Baalsrud’s resilience as he makes his way towards neutral Sweden’s border, fighting treacherous terrain, excruciating cold and the doggedly determined Gestapo. But as he slowly succumbs to snowblindness, hypothermia, and gangrene the true crux of the story comes into focus. The film is just as much about the people he meets throughout his harrowing journey. Jan’s strength and heroism is matched, often exceeded, only by the Norwegian patriots helping him at every step – civilians routinely risking their lives to save his. In many ways they form the emotional core of the movie.
Equally fascinating is when the movie shifts focus to that of a Gestapo officer named Kurt Stage (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers). No one has ever escaped Stage’s pursuit and he takes Baalsrud’s flight personally. He persistently hunts Jan rejecting the skepticism and needling of an ambitious fellow officer (Martin Kiefer). Myers offers a charismatic antagonist pushed more by ego and obsession than duty.
Some may say the film’s biggest surprise is in Harald Zwart’s direction. Perhaps known more for his misfires (“Agent Cody Banks”, “The Pink Panther 2”, “The Karate Kid” remake), but don’t let that dissuade you for a second. His portrayal of this unbelievable true story is riveting both visually and narratively. Whether he is capturing Jan Baalsrud’s intense and sometimes brutal attempts at survival or creating genuine moments of levity with the men and women risking everything to aid him. It makes for truly inspirational cinema.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
Since you gave this such a high rating I will take your word for it and check this one out.
Please do. I was immediately drawn to it after seeing the first trailer. Are familiar with the backstory? I wasn’t going in, but it’s truly an incredible journey.
I’m not. Is it a film where you would have to know some context of the event to understand it?
Not at all. It’s set during World War 2 and the opening text gives you all the setup you need.
Did you get to see this in theaters or did you find it streaming? This looks like something I have to see!
Definitely see it. It’s actually available for early viewing on Vudu. It’s one of those cases where the trailer completely sold me.
I’ve heard good things about this as I’m sure this is a total surprise from someone who is known for making crap Hollywood movies as I think he saved all of that money from those movies to do this. That is awesome.
It sure is. He comes across as an entirely different filmmaker in this film. It’s so good. It could have been really cliche but it never becomes that kind of movie. Hope you get a chance to see it.
I’d like to read the book first. Then watch the film. Looks great! Gracefully written review, Keith.
Thanks so much Cindy. I bet the it’s an extremely compelling read. I think you know how much I appreciate WW2 movies. This is a unique story that I think you would like.
I’m sure I will. Thank you!
You bet. Anxious to hear your houghts!
I need to see this movie, will have to look for it. Fab review!
Thanks. I was finally able to see it through Vudu. Let me know what you think.