Politics Take A Back Seat To Action In Michael Bay’s New Film

13-hours posterI won’t bury the lede. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is Michael Bay’s best film in a long, long time.

Is that high praise for the movie? Well, not exactly. Michael Bay has made some real stinkers. They’ve set the bar awfully low. But 13 Hours is much better than it should be, given Bay’s usual lack of subtlety. It offers a fairly straightforward account of the experience of American military contractors who were in Benghazi at the time of the 2012 attack on the U.S. Diplomatic outpost and CIA compound. That account comes from 2014 book by a similar name: “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” – a collaboration between the contractors themselves and writer Mitchell Zuckoff.

What Bay does not do – and perhaps this is the secondary lede – is indict any particular individual in the federal government for what happened on the ground in Benghazi on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. This may be a disappointment to those who see the Obama administration, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, as culpable for the loss of American lives in that episode. Bay doesn’t exactly let Clinton off the hook: that issue is simply not the focus of this movie.

13 hours 913 Hours offers the perspective of the contractors themselves: security for hire, ex-military, the kind of burly, bearded, hypermasculine warriors who all have nicknames like “Boon” and “Tig” and “Tanto”. The central character is Jack Silva (John Kraskinski), newly arrived in Benghazi, but joining an old friend, Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) – along with four other contractors already embedded in the CIA compound. Silva is a realtor back home, with a beautiful wife and two little girls (we see them in idealized flashbacks and video calls). Business is bad at home, money is tight (a fact we know because his wife discusses having fallen behind on payments for his life insurance – which, if not historically true, is a very Michael Bay touch), and Silva can’t seem to stay away from dangerous places. How much is financial pressure, and how much is the strangely addictive nature of this kind of work? Early in the film Silva says he’s there just for the money, but later he asks Rone, “Why can’t I just go home and stay home?” Rone’s response, “Warriors aren’t trained to retire,” may help to explain why people volunteer to be soldiers for hire in a place that 13 Hours depicts as a hell on earth.

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Silva is the audience’s proxy, and Krasinski is just right in the role. In a sea of beards and muscles (more on that in a minute), his natural warmth and likability stand out. Through Silva’s eyes we experience the chaos of a country on its way to being a “failed state” – where heavy arms are sold in street markets and anyone you see may be an ally or an enemy intent on killing you. Over and over in the middle of the attacks, with bullets flying, the soldiers encounter unknown armed Libyans and ask, “Feb. 17?” (February 17 being an American-friendly Libyan militia). They can only hope to be given a truthful answer – and it doesn’t always work.

What happened on that September night has been the stuff of political controversy ever since, but this much we know: Islamic militants first attacked the diplomatic outpost, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and a U.S. Foreign service office, Sean Smith. The attack then shifted to the “secret” CIA compound, where contractors Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty died. The contractors (also called Global Response Staff, or GRS) made a rescue attempt at the diplomatic outpost, but were delayed for half an hour, awaiting clearance to go. After returning to the CIA compound (having evacuated members of the diplomatic staff, but too late to save Stevens or Smith), the GRS defended the compound against repeated assaults throughout the night. Help didn’t arrive until early the next morning, despite repeated pleas to the embassy in Tripoli and the Diplomatic Security Services in Washington, starting at shortly after 9:30 p.m. When help did come, it was largely Libyan forces and a small group of CIA security staff and Delta Force soldiers (7 American reinforcements in total). That lack of response is the unanswered riddle at the heart of 13 Hours. Why didn’t the American military or intelligence community respond more aggressively to aid those under attack? There is a clear bureaucratic bad guy in the film, the CIA station chief played by David Costabile. He condescends to the contractors early in the film, dithers unhelpfully while the CIA compound is under attack, and most damning (at least in Fox News terms) gives the infamous, contested “Stand down” order when the soldiers want to rescue Stevens and staff.

That’s as far as the clear villainy goes in this movie, though. The inaction by the military and state department is simply treated as part of the chaos and confusion of the night. The security staff doesn’t have the time or energy to try to understand why help isn’t coming: they can only respond to the next assault.

Bay does very well by those assaults, though that’s hardly surprising. He knows how to shoot an action sequence, and these are relentlessly loud, glaring, violent  – but sometimes beautiful – ordeals to watch. The quiet moments when militants can be seen through night vision goggles creeping toward the compound are also genuinely nightmarish. The problem is that the pattern of assault-break-assault-break continues for so long that the movie loses much of its energy before the credits rolled. At 244 minutes 13 Hours is far longer than it needs to be – and is not helped by the ending, in which Bay couldn’t stop himself from being Bay. The photo of a wife and baby flutters down as a mortar hits a soldier, the bedraggled American flag floats in the pool at the diplomatic compound, a now-dead soldier delivers Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero in voiceover, characters utter lines like, “I’m proud to know Americans like you.” The tragic-sentimental-macho-patriotism that Bay loves so much nearly blots out the more restrained tone of the first half of the film, when I was delighted (and surprised) to actually like and care about characters in a Michael Bay film.

One more thing must be said about 13 Hours. All those beards and nicknames, helmets and husky voices…it was difficult to keep straight who was who, particularly as the action picked up. I had a guest with me at 13 Hours and on the way home we discovered how confused we both were about who did what, and what happened to various characters. They simply looked too similar in the dark, fast-cutting battle scenes. Frankly, that’s a problem that a director should spot and remedy before a film hits the theaters.

I suspect that 13 Hours will be a cinematic Rorschach Test, it’s angles appealing to one side of the political spectrum (though they might wish it had been harder hitting) and annoying the other (who feel far too much partisan rancor has been attached to this this tragedy). 13 Hours deserves credit for this much, at least: it honors soldiers who fight battles against ridiculous odds and who stand their ground in the middle of chaos and governmental incompetence. Many more Americans would have died at Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 had it not been for the “secret soldiers” who were there that night.