13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI Review: Bayhem In Benghazi
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is the least racist of the recent spate of January military celebration films, a shocker coming from the less-than-sensitive Michael Bay. The film downplays any 'conflict between religions' angles behind the 9/11/2012 attack on the US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, even going so far as to poke fun at the one character who says he’s gearing up for the holy war. By the time the film does acknowledge that there might be a religious component to the whole thing - a not insane point of view, as it seems almost certain that the attack was masterminded by one of the myriad Islamic militant groups active at the time, maybe Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or Ansar al-Sharia - 13 Hours has already acknowledged that the situation in Libya was complicated and disastrous in ways that had nothing to do with Islam. The film actually attempts to humanize the attackers - we see women and children mourning their corpses at the end, a decision that feels revolutionary coming from Bay - and one of the final images of the movie is a real life photo of a Libyan holding a sign saying the attackers don’t represent Islam. For a Michael Bay film this is Noam Chomsky-level progressive.
It’s not completely racist, but is it any good? The reality is that 13 Hours is okay; it’s a film with moments of flashing cinematic brilliance but also a film whose pace is hobbled by its commitment to being a true, minute-by-minute retelling of the story of the six CIA contractors in the GRS, or Global Response Staff, who did much of the fighting on that fatal night. At one point a character references Black Hawk Down, but Bay cannot find the same driving, relentless pace that makes Ridley Scott’s film the blueprint for modern military action stories. When Bay does get into the groove he creates some of the best action scenes I’ve seen in recent years - a raging street battle with RPGs ricocheting off curbs is stunning and exciting - but more than that he creates incredible, palpable tension.
I’m not sure that I would say Michael Bay has ever been a director who has been great at tension - his films have all been about release, less about build-up, and even his establishing moments feel like money shots - but in 13 Hours Bay creates several moments where you are just at the edge of your seat, waiting for the next shoe to drop or the next bullet to hit. One of the ways Bay does this is to lean into the chaos of post-revolutionary Libya; there are numerous factions battling it out in the streets of Benghazi, all having raided the armories of dead tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, and none of them are in uniform. Again and again the American soldiers are faced with armed men speaking a language they can’t understand, flying no colors at all. And again and again Bay milks these scenes for all they’re worth, dropping us right into the confusion of being in a war zone without clearly defined factions.
In fact my favorite scene in 13 Hours may not even be an action scene, but one that immerses us in the confusion. As the GRS come to the diplomatic outpost, which has been overridden and burnt by the attackers, they find the nine acre facility is overrun by Libyans carrying guns… but they have no way of knowing who are the bad guys, who are their allies and who are just local Benghazians who have picked up their personal AK and come to check out the action. It’s simply surreal watching paramilitary troops wandering around, surrounded by all these men, unsure if any of them are about to pull a trigger or detonate a suicide vest. The scene operates as a perfect little metaphor for the futility of military intervention in the Middle East.
I’ve gotten this far and realized that it is quite possible many of you don’t even quite know what 13 Hours is about. The Benghazi attack has been claimed by the right wing as a rallying cry against Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration, and in doing so they have obfuscated a lot of the reality of the situation. While there’s no way to claim that 13 Hours is apolitical (no matter what the studio says) it does an admirable job in focusing largely on the facts of the matter. There are dog whistle moments scattered throughout - a CIA bureaucrat shouts “STAND DOWN!” and the soldiers laugh at initial reports that the attack was caused by an anti-Islamic film on YouTube and there are A LOT of scenes bemoaning how America has left these heroes to die - but if you’re not already a Benghazi conspiracy-head you won’t notice them. What you’ll notice is the story:
Six CIA contractors (ie, mercenaries) work at a secret base one mile away from where the US ambassador to Libya is staying on a trip to Benghazi, 400 miles from Tripoli, which is the nearest back-up. It's 2012, and in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Gaddafi Libya has become a post-apocalyptic warzone, one that the ambassador is trying to unite under American ideals of peace, freedom and democracy. When the ambassador’s residence - which is woefully under-guarded - is attacked by a huge mob GRS waits helplessly, held back from intervening by the CIA station chief. When the men, moved by the horrific distress calls from within the burning building, finally disobey orders they find themselves in deep shit as the battle moves from the residence back to their secret base.
The film focuses largely on these six, which makes sense as it’s based on a book that the survivor's co-authored. By focusing on these guys the movie should itself be focused, but somehow the film spirals into moderate incomprehensibility in the end. Within each action scene I always understood what was going on - set piece for set piece, Bay is at the height of his game - but I didn’t always fully understand who was in a particular action sequence, or how they got there. Some of this is Modern Military Movie-itis - so many of these dudes look the same with their Middle East deployment beards and tactical gear - but some of it comes down to Bay and his editors (Pietro Scalia and Calvin Wimmer) dropping the ball. Four Americans died in the Benghazi attack, and I had to look up the fate of the fourth when I got home. I didn’t even realize the guy had died until the end credits, where he got memorialized.
While some action scenes make the beardy masculine men hard to tell apart, some of the actors do stand out. Orange Is The New Black’s Pablo Schreiber is terrific as Kris ‘Tanto’ Peranto, the jokester who becomes buds with the local translator who refuses to run away. Peyman Moaadi is really great in this role, which is allowed to grow beyond being a bumbling guy who points his gun at everybody and become a really heroic figure. Worth noting: this version of translator Amal is so clearly based on Gunga Din he even brings water to the GRS operators. Also terrific: Max Martini as Mark ‘Oz’ Geist and James Badge Dale as Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods; both actors have such commanding and honest presences that you believe them fully as special ops types… but they also have a humanity that they carry in every scene that makes these men deeper than just action heroes.
Less successful: John Krasinski as Jack Silva, the point of view character. Silva’s the newest in country and so we learn about Libya through him. But where the other members of the GRS team have a humanity to them Krasinski feels bizarrely empty, like Jim from The Office suffering from serious shell shock. I don’t think that’s the intention here - Silva has plenty of emotional scenes on Skype with his wife, and he has a big rooftop moment - but Krasinski has no warmth. He’s all distance; at one point a Libyan jokingly calls him ‘Captain America,’ but I think this movie proves why he was never right for that role. Krasinski is a strange void in the center of the film, when he was clearly hired to be the heart of it all.
There are moments in 13 Hours where the GRS operators deliver cringe-worthy lines - one guy says a variation on ‘I’m too old for this shit’ - but after a few of these clunkers I decided I actually loved the bad dialogue. I realized what I was watching: a Michael Bay movie about real guys who had, on some level, had their ideas about action and heroism and masculinity shaped by Michael Bay movies. There’s a meta level to this that’s astonishing; 13 Hours is the movie that probably best depicts how men like this see themselves, because they see themselves through the prism of jingoistic Hollywood movies made by Michael Bay. Of course they talk to each other in action movie cliches - it’s probably one of the more honest things in the whole film (which, to be fair, feels very honest).
It was when I realized this that I became disappointed in 13 Hours. While the movie isn’t as racist and jingoistic as you might expect from a Michael Bay Benghazi movie, it also isn’t as insane as you might have hoped. Much of the action is extraordinary - one day we’ll be writing essays about the way the mortar shot towards the end of 13 Hours is Bay calling back to the dropping bomb shot in Pearl Harbor, and what that means politically - and even more than that it’s gruesome and immediate. something you learn when talking to guys who have been in war: they don’t romanticize the violence. They romanticize the camaraderie, which is what 13 Hours does. They are often brutally honest about how terrible the violence - both the violence seen and the violence experienced - is for them. But Bay is never able to fully herd in his sprawling action epic, and too many brilliant set pieces get lost amidst a structure that isn’t as propulsive as it could be.
The problem, I suspect, is that Bay was trying too hard to be respectable. Even a guaranteed Bay shot - a swoop over heavily armored luxury cars stolen from Gaddafi - doesn’t sing quite the way your usual Bay swoop over luxury cars would. Don’t blame Dion Beebe, whose cinematography in some of the battle scenes looks like documentary footage shot by the most steel-nerved combat photographer ever. Blame Bay, who I think reined himself in out of respect for these men, and especially for the lives lost. Instead of tightening things up, instead of using as many of his usual broad strokes (which I love), he second guessed himself and didn’t give himself the freedom he needed.
It’s not quite a miss. 13 Hours is certainly the best modern military action movie since Black Hawk Down, and I do think that Bay camouflaged the politics enough to allow even lefties and confirmed Hillary voters to discover the on-the-ground reality of the Benghazi attack. In many ways this is the best possible outcome for 13 Hours - a movie that isn’t as offensive as it could have been to either side of the political aisle. I appreciate that Michael Bay approached this story from a very serious point of view, but I’m not entirely sure I want to see him do that again.