“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”
2 hours, 24 minutes
A Michael Bay movie about the tragedy surrounding the attack on our diplomatic mission in Libya seems fraught enough, but considering it comes out at the height of the political season when Hillary Clinton is all but guaranteed the Democratic nomination, I was sure I was in for a heavy-handed hatchet job, considering the former Secretary of State has been the one most implicated in the disaster.
Surprisingly, Bay has made such a straight-forward, neutral version of the story, that Clinton’s name is never even mentioned in the film. And, politics aside, that’s completely appropriate considering the film comes entirely from the point of view of the soldiers involved in the very narrow window before and after the attack. While these events were taking place, those men were worrying about not getting shot, not about what Hillary Clinton was or wasn’t doing half a world away.
The film has much more the feel of “Black Hawk Down” rather than a rabid political polemic that might come from the likes of leftie Oliver Stone or hacks like right-wing author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. The only messaging in “13 Hours” are the messages that you might expect from any war movie. War is insane. No one knows what’s going on. Did anything we do matter?
I wouldn’t say this is a great movie, by any means, but it’s probably the most watchable Michael Bay movie in years.
The movie centers on Jack, played by John Krasinsky, and opens upon his arrival in Libya. The scene played out under the credits has set up the backstory. Libya rose up against Gaddafi, but is now a failed state, home to discord and ripe for manipulation by groups like ISIS. Given that the film is entirely from the point of view of Jack and his fellows, independent security contractors (read: mercenaries) providing support to a secret CIA office in the city of Benghazi, it’s not surprising that the Libyans in the film are mostly nameless, faceless bad guys.
There are essentially two characters who are given any kind of personality at all — one, an interpreter working with the CIA, and two, a man running a check-point trying to strong-arm undesirable motorists. You might imagine he’s a villain, but his only lines, and virtually the only lines spoken by any non-white characters, go something like this, “I am Libyan, and we have the right to determine the destiny of our country.” Basically — America, butt out.
As the contractors go about their work acting as drivers and security guards, things are getting hairier out in the rest of the country. When it’s announced that Ambassador Christopher Stevens is leaving the relative safety of Tripoli to make a trip to Benghazi, Jack and the rest of the guys are aghast. The set-up’s not right, the security staff is young and untrained, there are no contingency plans in place. But, of course, it’s not really their deal. The CIA office and the Consulate have no connection. It’s only coincidence that they are as close as they are — just down the street, as a matter of fact.
Naturally, things go very, very wrong and it’s up to our heroes to go in and try to save whoever they can — if only they can get the damn bureaucrats to give the go-ahead.
But in this movie, it’s not the Obama administration, the State Department, or even the attackers (shown more as an almost inevitable wave of disaster than as motivated individuals) who are the villains. It’s the CIA functionary who consistently insults our heroes, and then impedes their ability to save the ambassador. If this movie had an ax to grind, it feels like it’s with the CIA as much as with anyone else.
Naturally, the contractors come off as warrior saints, equally at home protecting our agents abroad as quoting philosophy on the battlefield. It’s in these portrayals where the movie’s deficiencies really show themselves. The characters, good and bad, are all pretty broad. The acting seems fine, but without much nuance. The star, Krasinsky, is hampered by something that’s not really his fault, but is an issue all the same. I couldn’t stop seeing him as Jim Halpert from “The Office.” Krasinsky was so successful in that show that the character may be forever melded to him. It doesn’t help the issue that Jack is supposed to be the everyman of the group, our proxy — much the same as Jim in “The Office.”
That said, he does a perfectly acceptable job. Bay, on the other hand, does little to improve his track record on female characters. There’s only one in “13 Hours,” a pretty blond agent who is played as bitchy and oblivious. She does get a little redemption in the end, but is ultimately completely impotent compared to her manly bearded protectors.
As a basic war movie, I enjoyed “13 Hours.” It works on the same level as films like “Black Hawk Down,” and “Lone Survivor.” It’s not A-level filmmaking, by any means, but compared to the intensely sleazy filmography of Michael Bay, the film is surprisingly even and mature. And it does achieve what a war movie like this should achieve: presenting a punishingly brutal two hours that would make anyone question the intelligence of going to war.
“13 Hours” is rated R for language and brutal war violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.