‘Things change fast in Benghazi,” we are told near the opening of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, and the dynamism with which the film presents the events of September 11, 2012, makes the quote ring true.
As the film starts, we land with former SEAL turned private-security-officer Jack Silva (The Office’s John Krasinski) in the middle of a post-Qaddafi Libyan hellscape. Benghazi is dominated by local security forces and militias indistinguishable from one another that can and will switch sides on the turn of a dime. We are reminded constantly that everyone is a bad guy “until they’re not.”
As anyone familiar with the Benghazi attack will know, a disaster is looming for the security contractors and their CIA liaisons on the ground. Only our own State Department remained seemingly unaware of the cauldron of tribal extremism that Benghazi had become — as the film shows, Foggy Bottom had all but abandoned or disavowed knowledge of the CIA outpost in the city. “We have no f***ing support,” one of the few U.S. security personnel on the ground declares as he attempts to talk his way past a militia roadblock.
That doesn’t stop Ambassador Chris Stevens from giving the CIA station chief (played by David Costabile) and Global Response Staff (GRS) forces led by “Rone” (The Departed’s James Badge Dale in a long-overdue leading tough-guy role) a hopeful pep talk about the future of Benghazi and Libya in general. Stevens is an idealist and an optimist, a “true believer” as he’s described during security prep for his arrival on Monday September 10, 2012. What Silva finds is a heavily under-equipped consulate with an under-prepared security detail, “Real dot gov s***,” he laments.
When the assault on Stevens’s compound starts just after sundown on September 11, (and notably, without the film’s showing protests) we are thrown suddenly into the middle of the chaos, with the “Ambo” (as the ex-special forces agents refer to Stevens), Foreign Service officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli), and the security personnel at the consulate hunkering down and begging for backup. As the first wave of the attack roars by, Bay is at his kinetic best, like an anxious kid with his hand on the detonator.
Silva, Rone, and his GRS men defy both CIA orders and pleas from their families and rush in to assist the skeleton crew at the embassy. In the several hours between assaults, the six men dig in between fire fights and together examine their family obligations, their duties, and their mission, which even they are not sure has a purpose.
We are constantly reminded that these men on the ground are alone and stranded. We know in hindsight that the only help that ever came was a small group of operators from Tripoli led by Glen “Bub” Doherty (Toby Stephens, who may be recognizable as James Bond’s nemesis from Die Another Day or, most recently, from Black Sails on Showtime).
#share#Shots of grounded F-16s and helicopters waiting for takeoff remind us that the military might of the United States never came to help that night. We are never told why, which will doubtless leave some seeking further answers as to what President Obama’s official orders were (we still don’t know and no one in the media seems interested in asking) or what then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was doing after she packed up and went home mid-attack.
13 Hours doesn’t concern itself with the politics of Benghazi in Washington, just the relationships and the survival of the men on the ground. The names “Obama” and “Clinton” are never mentioned during the repeated pleas by trapped Americans to send gunships, drones, F-16s, or rescue teams. “Here we got nothing and no one,” Krasinski’s Silva growls as he stares through the scope of his rifle at oncoming attackers.
There are passing mentions of protests and videos which are quickly dismissed as background noise. The film claims that the U.S. State Department blames Ansar al-Sharia after the initial attack at 12:06 a.m., an explanation in stark contrast to the Internet-video lie that would be uttered by Secretary Clinton in front of the four flag-draped caskets three days later.
When Bay puts aside the children’s toys and gets serious, we are reminded that cinematically he can land a punch. With 13 Hours, he competently ventures into the same dramatic territory as Ridley Scott did with Black Hawk Down. The firefights are ramped up and RPGs bounce from the ground and straight into our ear drums. It’s his most brutal film to date — if only he had portrayed the sinking of the Arizona in Pearl Harbor with the same kind of raw energy.
Audience members familiar with the director’s style will still appreciate all the hallmarks of a Michael Bay film present in 13 Hours. Witness the gritty close ups, muted slow motion, earth-rattling explosions, and long tracking shots of bombs and bullets that will draw direct comparisons to his previous work on The Rock and Bad Boys.
#related#Gone, however, are the Transformers-style quips and one liners — this is Bay’s most serious film to date. He does a good job of laying out exactly how and when the attacks took place at the consulate and later at the annex building. We never feel lost in the firefights. (Perhaps the absence of 40-foot tall giant CGI robots colliding with each other and the actors has something to do with this.) With members of the actual security team on the ground that night (Kristian Paranto, John Tiegen, and Mark Geist) serving as technical advisers to the film, there is an added element of realism to how their dramatic counterparts behave and handle their circumstances and weapons.
There may be a great film to be made about the decision-making or lack thereof at the White House and State Department during the embassy attacks, but I’m not holding my breath. Bay’s straightforward portrayal of the attack will be as close as pop culture comes to analyzing the failures of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton that night. Still, the fact that there is any reminder of Benghazi in our popular culture at all is doubtless giving the Clinton campaign major headaches.
What we see in 13 Hours is a portrayal of the brave leadership, camaraderie, and sacrifices of the forgotten men on the ground, qualities that were inexplicably absent among their superiors in Washington that night.