Film Review – 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
“This is a true story,” are the words that open director Michael Bay‘s latest phantasmagoria of gorgeous violence and shoddy politics. It’s a not very subtle way to start a not very subtle film that centers on a hot button topic that’s held some domination over political discourse for the last two years. This isn’t “based on,” or “inspired by,” and as if to accentuate this insinuation, the screening of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi that was presented to critics in Seattle opened with a gentleman from KVI Talk Radio telling the crowd how Bay has left the politics out of the movie and what a great representation of the U.S. military it is. This was preceded by a featurette of interviews of the real-life men who the movie is going to depict, telling in buzz terms what the experience was like.
The movie opens on a series of images of the area of Benghazi and other things military related while in a long succession spits out a series of text that attempt to vaguely inform the viewer of the complex history that has led to the social unrest that fueled the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. If one thing is made certain in this prolog, it’s that Libya was deemed a hot zone too dangerous for an embassy to be placed in. From a mostly procedural account the story follows six soldiers on security detail for the unofficial embassy that the U.S. did setup who had to contend with a siege that occurred on September 11, 2012 while an U.S. Ambassador was visiting.
Despite being mostly an action film, there’s a long build to the attack that laboriously clicks along, primarily with the intention of highlighting all the security flaws that the movie contests existed that led to a surprisingly coordinated attack from mortars as well as foot soldiers. During the buildup we’re introduced to the stories heroes, Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Rone Woods (James Badge Dale), Tanto Poronto (Pablo Schreiber) and Boon Benton (David Denman) to name a few. Mostly they talk about their families and pretend they’re complicated men because they have feelings and read things like Joseph Campbell‘s Power of Myth. Of course the moment they all get on some sort of communication device to talk to their families at the same time, you know is the shifting point.
What Bay does best is action and once this thing ramps up there’s no shortage of fantastically photographed carnage. Utilizing digital cinematography from Dion Beebe, the Director of Photography best known for helping establish the mainstream use of digital in Hollywood with Michael Mann‘s films Collateral and Miami Vice, there’s a crispness to the visceral display that helps create an immediacy to the action. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the spectacle and lose sight of the fact we’re watching an actual tragedy take place that actually took place, which seems to be half of Bay’s objective here.
The other half seems to be pointed oh so nonchalantly at the U.S. government while furthering ideas of xenophobia through fear of the other. Bay’s film depicts that the section chief Bob (David Costabile) refused to send the security detail to the nearby embassy when the attack broke out, it also asserts almost flat out that the U.S. Government refused to send proper assistance to support an embassy that wasn’t supposed to exist in a dangerous hot zone. Early in the attack on the embassy we are shown a drone is placed overhead of the location for surveillance. Later in the film a character directly comments on the existence of the drone providing video footage, in a digital crisp clarity, to the U.S. Government, presumably the White House or Pentagon, with a better perspective on the attack then they have. And you thought this was a movie that’s left the politics out.
The movie’s biggest fallacy though is not its dubious lack of political motivations but its blatant demonization of the other. After the attack on the embassy, the security detail pulls back to the nearby base everyone was stationed at in order to defend themselves against waves of attacks. At one point a character says, “It feels like we’re in a horror movie,” which isn’t so far from the presentation Bay is giving. Much like John Carpenter‘s Assault on Precinct 13, we have a group of legal officials holed up in a half-operational base after an assault on a non-operational embassy that had only a few soldiers assigned to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens. Here the attackers are just as anonymous as the gang members in Carpenter’s 1976 cult film. Often obscured by objects like pillars they’re hiding behind, or torn tarpaulins hanging from the skeletal remains of building structures, the enemy is barely visible except when they’re being eviscerated by gunfire or praying. Bay shoots some gorgeous scenery among the chaotic violence, and it’s often to take a serene moment to watch the enemy pray, a reminder that there’s an ideology behind all this aggression towards the U.S.
If Sicario was all about how we keep the other at arm’s length in order to demonize and ignore them, then 13 Hours seems to be the critique Sicario was leveling its aim at. If anything, Bay is not a subtle filmmaker and there’s nothing really subtle here about the movie’s political critiques at what it deems is current administration inaction during the situation. It’s no accident that the tagline on the poster for this thing reads: When everything went wrong six men had the courage to do what was right.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with subjects Mark Geist, Kris Paranto and John Tiegen about the film.