“A Lybian transport. Still no Americans.”
This line, uttered by one of the six soldiers who fought to protect dozens of American civilians in Benghazi, Lybia on September 11, 2012, sums up those disastrous events with quiet reserve. Ever since that day, there have been questions, accusations and theories that have tried to make sense of what happened, but to this day, a fog of secrecy still lingers among the various excuses. But no matter how strong a film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, if you’re expecting any sort of clarity to come from it, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.
Based on the book, “13 Hours” by Mitchell Zuckoff, the film follows the six soldiers who were on the ground at the time of the attack, the only support the Americans had fending off several attacks on their secret CIA compounds. Because of this, and because a lot of the information in regards to the CIA, the White House and other government entities about that night is still heavily classified or redacted, director Michael Bay makes the excellent decision to excise that part of the story and rely only on the information the soldiers knew at the time of the attack — which essentially adds up to squat. From the accounts of the soldiers, no amount of begging could get around the massive amount of bureaucratic red tape that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens (Matt Letscher) and kept the only real help they were provided stranded at the Benghazi airport for over six hours. The only answers the soldiers ever received in that grueling thirteen hours was the same false information government officials were peddling shortly after the attacks about protests and videos.
Screenwriter Chuck Hogan uses the story of Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who arrives in Benghazi several weeks prior to the attack, as the narrative’s emotional core. One of his first experiences helps introduce us to the current state of affairs in Benghazi after the reign of Muammar Gaddafi ended, leaving Lybia to be overrun by gang violence and terrorist cells. We also able to learn about the compound through Silva’s eyes, getting to know the layout and the personnel, led by Bob (David Costabile, who plays this type of smarmy character so well, you have to wonder if that’s just who he is), a red-blooded bureaucrat through-and-through. The exact reason why this team of analysts and spies are there is a little unclear — it has to do with getting in with some oil executive, I think — but it doesn’t necessarily matter. The point is, these soldiers were assigned as their security detail and were going to fight to the death to protect every last American, even if they had to rely on nothing but themselves.
James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, and Max Martini fill out their respective roles perfectly, building a camaraderie that is so natural, you’d think they were actually a band of brothers. They work so well as soldiers, in fact, that Krasinski sticks out like a sore thumb among them. There’s no doubt he fits in with the group and gives a fine performance, but compared to the rest of the team, he’s sorely miscast. He just doesn’t have that hardcore grit I expected, and saw, from the other actors, who all deliver high-caliber, and at times, devastating performances. We all pretty much know what’s about to happen, so when Bay manipulates our emotions by having every soldier call home the day before everything goes down, whether that happened or not, it pulls you in even deeper and does what it’s meant to do — help you empathize with these human, flawed, brave men.
But no matter how you may want to get around it, this is above all else, an action film, and Bay does what he does best — blow stuff up in terrifically orchestrated sequences. From the initial attack on the Ambassador’s compound, where the terrorists storm the building and set fire to it to it in order to smoke the Ambassador out, to the waves of attacks on the secret base, leaving everyone tired, hungry and emotionally drained, Bay gives us his unique vision with the same heart-pounding touch he’s had since the beginning of his career. A lot of people may believe Bay lost his mind recently with overindulgent films (the Transformers franchise being the most egregious), but regardless of that, he takes a time out here to present a much more subtle, personal, and in some ways grounded, style that shows he’s still a tremendously effective visual storyteller.
Now I know any film based on true events is going to be altered or tweaked in some way for dramatic purposes, and whether you believe any bit of the film or not is beside the point. From an entertainment standpoint, the movie works on every level, providing intrigue, action, emotion and anger all rolled into a perfectly paced couple of hours. From a political standpoint, it remains pretty neutral, giving us just enough to sink our teeth into, but staying away from diving too deep into the reasoning behind the real decisions made by our government, or by those decisions made by the terrorists, the Lybian fighters who joined with the American forces to help them in their time of need, and the authorities who kept disappearing just before a new wave would arrive. Yes, it may end up raising more questions than it answers, but if it opens the eyes of more people into wanting the truth and not some political merry-go round of vagueness, that’s a good thing.
If there’s one question everyone should want to know after watching this movie, it’s where was America when their people were under attack? The soldiers who defended and saved lives that night deserve at least that much.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include The 5th Wave, Dirty Grandpa and The Boy. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.