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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Freedom of Information

Here's why I'm supposed to hate 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi:

1. Michael Bay directed it, and Michael Bay only makes crypto-racist, crypto-misogynist, jingoistic war porn for uncritical idiots.

2. You can tell by the release date (and the director) that 13 Hours is a poorly made quasi-political jab at a Presidential candidate whose involvement in the Battle of Benghazi has been thoroughly settled in the public consciousness. Bay and writer Chuck Hogan (working from Mitchell Zuckoff's book) are only interested in touting debunked conspiracy theories. Had this film any merit, like the beloved Zero Dark Thirty, we would have seen it during Nominations Season--not the January dumping ground.

3. Like last year's American Sniper, everyone in the U.S. military is portrayed as white, ultra-macho animals who ain't got time to bleed--while the "enemy" are generic in their cowardice, dark skin, and thirst for American blood. As the filmmakers bleach the complexities of war to create a simplistic video game inhabited by "good guys" and "bad guys", human beings become unrecognizable chunks of battle ground fodder.

These would be valid reasons to avoid 13 Hours, if any of them were true.

Michael Bay's filmography is littered with all the offenses listed above, from the Transformers movies to Pain & Gain and beyond, but it's unwise to assume he's incapable of growth. This is the most mature Bay film I've seen, technically, narratively, and dramatically. Sure, there are a handful of minor details that detract from its overall quality, but if you'd told me 13 Hours was directed by someone eager to superimpose Bay's aesthetics onto a legit war movie, I would've totally bought it.

John Krasinski stars as Jack Silva, an ex-Navy SEAL who takes a private security job in Benghazi, Libya. Actually, it's a pseudo-private job: he and five other specialists have been brought in to guard a secret CIA outpost charged with, among other things, monitoring weapons trafficking after the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The region has splintered into factions of armed rivals, shaky alliances, and a general distrust of outsiders. The CIA needs the expertise of GRS (Global Response Staff) to protect its personnel, and the outpost's director (David Costabile) gives clear instructions not to engage anyone beyond their assigned duties.

Up the road from the compound is a makeshift American embassy, which Ambassador Chris Stevens occupies for a couple of days with his conspicuously small security detail. When dozens of locals raid the compound, one of Stevens' men calls for help. Silva and the unit's leader, Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), prepare reinforcements, but they're never given permission to act. Turns out one of the problems with being a super-secret arm of a secretive branch of the government is that official authorizations are hard to come by--especially in emergency situations. Woods and Silva break ranks and lead their men into danger, with the aim of escorting Stevens and company to safety, without giving away the compound's location.

Of course, everything goes south. What follows is a thirteen-hour seige spanning two poorly fortified facilities. The attacks come in waves, and Bay's triumph is making the audience feel a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the fatigue the GRS must have experienced. The movie is two-and-a-half-hours long, and by the time Woods and Silva abandon the embassy there's still at least an hour-and-a-half left to go. 13 Hours is like the climax of Scarface played on a Groundhog Day loop (minus the gratuitous bloodshed), with the Americans falling further and further back while losing hope that anyone will come for them. The GRS began the film as tired but jovial jobbers counting the days until they could cash their checks and see their families; by the end, they're exhausted, twitchy, and mindful of the fact that they never should have been there--much like their employer.

You've seen versions of this story before: the invading hordes, the confined spaces, the macho military dudes protecting civilians. But 13 Hours isn't an Aliens rip-off, or a Resident Evil clone. The soldiers aren't just a bunch of Dead Meats whose purpose is to go out on a heroic, "Hey, cool!" note. There aren't any dumb, rah-rah assholes in the group. These men are trained to think first and blow people up if they have to, and it's heartbreaking to see the disparity between them as imperfect fathers and expert killers.

Much of this rests on the actors' shoulders. Hogan's dialogue reveals the biggest cracks in Bay's shiny, new facade: the film does a better job of adding depth to the enemy fighters than the characters' tiresome use of the phrase "bad guys". I buy the lack of conversational nuance, as pertains to the reality of the story, but hearing that Fox News dog-whistle so frequently was a bit much to take. I could have done without the jokes, as well. Perhaps Hogan felt obligated to give the cast (half of whom come from television comedy) a buoy in 13 Hours' roiling sea of dramatic misery, but none of them needed to be saved. You'd never mistake Jack Silva for Jim from The Office, just as no one got distracted when Chris Pratt popped up as a SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty while still playing a fool on Parks and Recreation.

On the topic of Bay-isms, let's declare a moratorium on CGI tracking shots of bombs zeroing in on their targets. And did every historical battle really feature a cook taking up arms against marauding hordes?* I also found a lot of sketchy geography in the film, particularly during the later nighttime scenes, where everyone's covered in beards, blood, and soot. During one five-minute stretch in the middle, I literally thought part of the film had gone missing, thanks to the confusing cuts between constantly moving groups.

Let's talk politics for a second. Yes, one can detect a strong ideological undercurrent in 13 Hours, but it's not so much anti-government as anti-bureaucracy. People might assume that Hillary Clinton is the film's phantom menace, considering the controversy surrounding her Secretary of State role at the time. Clinton is never mentioned by name, and there is no blame placed at anyone's feet, specifically, for the lack of reinforcements in Benghazi (aside from the massive amounts of red tape that, by necessity, surrounds covert CIA bases).

Bay and Hogan's position, if it can be understood by watching their film, is that it takes a special breed of person to voluntarily fight, serve, and protect government interests, especially in Earth's most volatile regions. More to the point, it is the government's responsibility to honor that dedication and sacrifice by not involving soldiers in worthless conflicts (or, at the very, very least, ensuring that they have every available resource with which to do their jobs). Michael Moore made this point in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Where to Invade Next. Want to talk about watchdogs and warriors stranded in unwinnable situations thanks to an absentee government? Have a look at The Big Short and Sicario, two films whose political bona fides I don't recall being called into question.

Some people criticize 13 Hours as propaganda designed to reinforce the stunted beliefs of an already biased audience. The attack is itself propagandist in nature, implicitly aimed at keeping Left-leaning individuals from making up their own minds about a controversial piece of art. "Don't waste your time on this wing-nut nonsense," they say. The CIA has even denounced the film. Hey, if the world's number one spy outfit says there's nothing to see here...

See the movie or don't. And, sure, bring your baggage into the theatre. Just don't unpack it during the show. 

*If so, let's get them off the kitchen line and onto the front lines. They're pretty amazing.