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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 15, 2016
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Most sane people, upon hearing the word “Benghazi”, instinctively think, “Oh, God, not this again.” That’s because the word has come two mean two nearly-unrelated things; three, if you count the Libyan city itself. And one of those meanings is a giant parliamentary boondoggle set up by one of the two major American political parties in order primarily, as they have admitted, to kneecap the presumptive frontrunner of the other party in the upcoming presidential election.

But this giant, childish farce grew out of what was, admittedly, a massive failure of intelligence and preparedness on the part of the CIA and the State Department, in which a small number of military contractors prevented much greater American losses. The facts of what happened on the night of September 11, 2012 are the story Michael Bay wants to tell in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. And, for the most part he succeeds, although he does so by ignoring the politically salient questions of why.

Our heroes, red-blooded American men all, were brought in by the CIA to protect a secret operation going on in the city of Benghazi in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s deposition and execution. For the most part, we follow Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), a former SEAL, and friend of Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale). The six-man team is filled out with an ex-Ranger, “Tanto” (Pablo Schreiber), and a few ex-Marines (Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, and David Denman). They all leave women and children at home while they risk their lives for a couple months at a stretch.

Bay deals with the setup expediently, filling in the back story of Libya and introducing us to the characters in a little over a half-hour of the movie’s running time. The remaining two hours are a string of firefights that play out when a local force equipped with weapons from Gaddafi’s armories systematically assaults first the drastically underguarded U.S. diplomatic outpost, then the CIA annex.

And say whatever else you will about Michael Bay, but the man knows how to shoot the hell out of a firefight. The action is spectacular, at times feeling like the frame rate jumps up in a better use of that hyper-realistic technique than Peter Jackson pulled off in The Hobbit. It’s also chaotic and disorganized, as you’d expect from Bay, but for once it feels like that’s saying something about the confusion these men must have felt. And yet, on top of all this, it’s strangely serious. One particular crescendo peaks when the contractors realize the attackers are trying to unload a huge bomb from a bus; they train their fire on that vehicle, detonating the bomb safely outside their compound. In any other action film, this would have triggered wild applause, but the people who attended my screening remained strangely, soberly, respectfully silent. It’s possible that audiences outside Washington D.C. might react differently.

But for all the just-the-facts equanimity Chuck Hogan’s screenplay brings to this presentation, 13 Hours can’t help but land like a grenade in the middle of a highly charged tempest in a cable-news teacup. That discussion has long since moved on from any actual concern with the facts on the ground, and is all bound up with the questions of why and how things got the way they were before everything went sideways. These are the exact questions the movie refuses to address.

As one particular example, why did the CIA station chief (David Costabile) refuse to send the contractors to support the defense of the diplomatic outpost? We do learn something about their mission, securing and disposing of the very weapons from Gaddafi’s vaults that were eventually turned on them. It’s entirely possible that the chief was concerned that if the annex was left unguarded that the attackers could compromise what the CIA had learned, and maybe use that information to find even more weapons. But when the script doesn’t even bring up what he’s thinking, it’s all too easy to assume he’s simply stupid or incompetent. In this case, trying not to take any side at all ends up reinforcing one narrative more than the other.

The script is shot through with absent motives like this. They’re the sort of thing that’s fine to leave as broad outlines when you’re spinning vampire yarns with Guillermo del Toro, but the omissions glare in a story as fraught as this one has become. The only motivations Hogan and Bay seem to consider are the contractors’ for being in Benghazi in the first place, and even these are never really resolved.

Without them, the most obvious explanation for the movie seems to be a naked cash grab, the filmmakers turning a profit on the infamy of the issue. There are no answers here; just a lot of stuff getting blowed up real good, showing just how bad-ass even retired American soldiers can be. Maybe some day the dust will truly settle and we can start to understand what really happened behind all the bullets and bombs. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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