So once again we have survived.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

tn_13hours13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI is Michael Bay’s movie about the deadly September 11th, 2012 attacks on the American consulate and CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya. That sounds like a terrible joke – one of Hollywood’s most bombastic, least thoughtful directors tackling a recent (and highly politicized) tragedy. And I’m not totally sure whether he’s thinking of this more like a cool action movie or his version of a BLACK HAWK DOWN/ZERO DARK THIRTY. (I’d guess the second one.) But I have to say he did a better job than I thought he would.

John Krasinski (JARHEAD) plays Jack Silva, a former Navy SEAL hired to help out a small group of special ops guys working at a secret CIA base in Benghazi to snatch up grenade launchers and other weapons floating toward the black market after the fall of Gaddafi. Five weeks after he gets there the consulate about a mile away is attacked by a mob of militants, and Jack and friends want to help. And sort of feel like they have to, because there’s no one else to do it.

The appeal to Bay, and of the movie, is the portrayal of these soldiers, their professionalism and heroism, their drive to use their unique skills in a hugely uphill battle, even when they’re (according to the movie) told to stay out of it. From THE ROCK to the TRANSFORMERSes, Bay has always had a fascination with these types of elite soldiers. He’s good at casting big, manly looking dudes and having them throw out the lingo and sling the hardware around and seem like they’ve been doing the job forever. Krasinski is buffed up (he has one scene to really showcase his six pack) and everybody has a shaggy beard and a sweaty forehead, of course.
What sells them, though, is their camaraderie. Some of these guys were old friends, others just have similar experiences that create instant brotherhood. There’s a good scene where Silva arrives and is introduced to everybody and you can see who’s real boisterous and who’s more laid back but get the idea that all of them are formidable.

(I should mention that they include Max Martini [CSI, CSI: Miami], James Badge Dale [Law & Order: SVU, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY], Pablo Schreiber [Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU], David Denman [CSI: Miami], Dominic Fumusa [Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY] and Toby Stephens [Law & Order: UK]).

mp_13hoursThroughout the harrowing experience there’s all kinds of dread and some tragedy and crying but they deal with the stress through gallows humor. There’s one guy whose thing seems to be calmly asking about disquieting observations: Did the chanting just stop? Does it seem to you guys like everyone else knows what’s going on but us? And remember how on The Office something preposterous would happen and Krasinski would turn to the camera and make an “ain’t I a stinker?” type face? Here he has a much darker version of that. Someone asks him a question and it’s more powerful for him to just give them a grim look than to say anything.

I’m amazed to be saying this, but Bay handles that tone just right. The humor feels organic, it helps us get through the heaviness of the movie just as it helps them, without seeming like inappropriate comic relief. As much as I’ve hated Bay’s approach to action in most of his movies, by far the worst part of his filmography is his terrible sense of humor and completely haphazard placement of jokes. So this is a major achievement on his part.

The action is not standard Bay style. It’s chaotic, but in a completely appropriate quasi-documentary sort of way, mostly just disorienting in the way it would be if you were there. It’s not about cool moves and shots, but a nightmarish impression of machine gun fire and muzzle flashes all around, flames in the distance, sometimes a spray of sparks, splinters, blood. His image of Libya is not the digitally yellowed look of most of the other Middle East war films, it has more color and contrast and beauty to it. When the black smoke that will kill Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher, CSI: Miami, CSI) rolls under the door it’s so picturesque that it makes it more horrible.

But there is one show-offy shot, a very cool one if divorced from context, where the camera follows a mortar as it’s loaded, shot into the air and then drops on the roof of the CIA base. Bay did this for the bombing of Pearl Harbor and now the real life death of an American serviceman. That’s pure Bay right there I guess. I don’t agree with that choice in this movie.

Mostly, though, he’s just presenting what feel like pretty realistic versions of what happened. An intense chase/shootout through narrow alleys struck me as possibly having some FURY ROAD influence, but without seeming exaggerated. Bay has plenty of chances to go overboard. After building up Glenn Doherty (Stephens, who was the young version of Clint in SPACE COWBOYS), an old SEAL buddy of Silva coming all the way from Tripoli to help, his death is sadly, pathetically anti-climactic. It might even be forgivable to give him a slow motion hero shot, but Bay didn’t take the bait.

(trivia: the real Glenn Doherty was one of the guys shooting the pirates through the tiny windows of the boat in the incident that CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is based on)

The worst case of Bay falling back on his usual tendencies is in the portrayal of the CIA chief “Bob” (David Costabile, Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU), who he shows as one of his snobbish, elitist egghead bureaucrats who ruin everything and don’t understand that a man needs to do a man’s work like a man does because he’s a man. Bob condescends to the soldiers, insults them, makes fun of them for working out, is a wimp. When the shit goes down he forbids the soldiers from helping, tells them to “stand down” more than once, yells at them like an asshole boss.

Just playing devil’s advocate here, but I see a possibility that “stand down” would’ve been a reasonable position. The claim is that someone high up didn’t want “a Black Hawk Down situation,” with the implication that they didn’t want to be embarrassed by a mess. But shouldn’t they also want to avoid causing the mess, making the matter worse? In the movie we’ve been told that this CIA base The Annex is totally secret, that they are illegally in the country. Maybe exposing this base and thus ending their mission would have further-reaching repercussions than we would immediately think of. “Bob” has also been told that the ambassador is in a safe room, so he has to consider that sending soldiers in could be needlessly exposing them to danger. Following orders from high up instead of disobeying them like in an action movie could actually be the wiser choice in an explosive international incident with so many lives at stake, couldn’t it? I couldn’t say. I’m not presumptuous enough to think I know the best thing to do in an impossible situation like this.

But the movie thinks it knows, because Bay has Costabile play the guy like a total dick, obviously wrong and petty and cowardly. Much later he gets Put In His Place, told he has to follow the orders of the soldiers now, and suddenly out of the blue he does take charge and presents a detailed plan of how the staff is going to get out of there. Now suddenly he’s a brave and experienced man who knows his shit and knows how to lead. I didn’t really feel the transition. I’d like to see more of this later version of Bob.

Bay claims the movie is apolitical, because he doesn’t go into any of the stuff that Republicans and conspiracy theorists fixate on about Secretary of State Clinton being at fault for the security failure or covering something up. But having the CIA chief telling them to “stand down” is a point of contention. From what I’ve read, the official report found that this did not happen, and the chief in question adamantly denies it, but at least one of the surviving soldiers still insists that’s what happened. Again, I won’t pretend to know. And I think it’s fair for Bay to include it since he takes it from the book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff “and the Annex Security Team,” adapted by Chuck Hogan (writer of the novel that THE TOWN is based on). It shouldn’t be a surprise that from their point of view what they wanted to do was right and what the higher ups told them was wrong.

In real life the ambassador and consulate had requested more security and never got it, for various reasons. Maybe if they had it would’ve prevented this tragedy. The movie does underline this, with many comments about how exposed they are, what equipment they don’t have, how much more backup they’d have in Iraq. But I don’t think it comes across as pushing an agenda. The situation sucks, and people doing dangerous jobs can complain. I think if they did have more to work with they’d still be grousing, and with good reason. Even with more people and resources, fending off an attack by 125-150 gunmen wouldn’t have been a walk in the park.

Maybe a more significant accidental message is the us against them narrative it reinforces. The Americans are the good guys, the local militias and police they work with are completely inept and likely to betray them, very few Libyans in the movie are not there to attack them. As far as the drama and the situation they’re in it’s accurate, but it contributes to this myth of Americans being in opposition to all of the Middle East. In the end, when a card (well, a blippy computer readout) tells us that 30,000 Libyans attended a memorial for Ambassador Stevens, this is pretty much out of the blue.

Despite some misgivings I think 13 HOURS is best at what was probly Bay’s primary goal: paying tribute to the people who died in this horrible incident. The ambassador comes across as idealistic, well liked, sincere. The soldiers come across as courageous, likable, heroic. I don’t feel like I come out with much more understanding of what happened or why or what it means, but I don’t think I should. Sometimes you just have to realize that shit is complicated. Life is complicated. Even my feelings about Michael Bay movies can be complicated. This is one of his best, I think.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 8th, 2016 at 1:03 pm and is filed under Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

  1. Went in thinking this one was gong to be so wrong-headed and possibly offensive and left thinking it was a legitimately good and respective movie. You win this one Bay… Between this and Pain & Gain, I think I’ve finally found the Bay I like/love and not the one I dislike but started to find interesting.

  2. Crushinator Jones

    June 8th, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    Bay simply indulges all his worst impulses on Transformers. He drains out the poison and then makes films like this or Pain and Gain. So be it.

  3. I think we’re too busy taking Batman vs Superman and Geek culture so seriously that we don’t have time to take actual real life discussion seriously.

  4. As one of the few flaming liberals who was champing at the bit to see this opening day, I went in expecting a hilariously dumb trainwreck. Instead, I got an honestly thrilling and well-crafted action procedural. I never thought I’d say this, but Michael “Guantanamo” Bay is finally showing signs of growing up. I don’t know if this is a good thing, but it worked for this movie.

    I cannot speak to the politics of any of it, as exactly everything I know about Benghazi I learned from this movie, but I will say that I saw evidence of Bay attempting to be somewhat objective and see things from more than one (generally lunkheaded) point of view. It doesn’t come naturally to him, though, so instead of crafting scenes in which we can see Bob struggling with his conscience in the face of both his orders and his priorities as a member of the intelligence community, we just get a line from one of the mercs about how Bob had been in the shit and won medals, therefore making him “the real deal.” Bay’s natural inclination is to paint characters in the broadest strokes possible, but reality checked him just slightly and made him give due credit to a pencil-pusher instead of throwing him out the back of a cargo plane the way he usually would. It’s not much, but I appreciate the effort.

  5. Good Movie. But if not for Bay’s action filmatics, subdued though his typical proclivities were, It would’ve been absolutely great. Being a big fan of Tears of the Sun, I’d like to have seen what Antoine Fuqua would’ve done with this material(though The Equalizer gives me pause). As it was, there were scenes where I just had no idea who was shooting from where. With regards to “appropriate”, “chaotic”, “quasi-documentary” ness Main Man, I’d suggest rewatching Saving Private Ryan. That film makes clear that the intensely chaotic can be depicted, without chaotic visuals. That is, a skilled action filmatist can employ run and gun shaky-cam techniques all day, and maintain absolute visual clarity. Or check out any garden variety ep of COPS, and note that none of that *actual* run and gun documentary footage is as visually incoherent as the fights in The Bourne Ultimatum.

    With respect to Republicans’ and conspiracy theorists’ “fixations” regarding the culpability of currently under federal investigation, then Sec. of State Clinton…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUObFqU5cgE&list=FL09tgwkZDN2TSGhtu6j5qDA&index=12 gets really instructive at 5:07min. mark.

  6. Haha Vern got called out by Rogue for not knowing good action filmatism. :)

  7. Rogue – I know that you know that I know that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is better. I’m just saying that 13 HOURS’s chaos works better (and is done better) than in some of the other Michael Bay movies, which I have criticized at length and with vigor since the 1990s.

  8. Goes without sayin Main Man. The reference was made only(I’m sayin only) to say that the credit where credit is due type olive branch of your “appropriate” assessment, wasn’t warranted/deserved here. But that’s not to say I expected/wanted you to rip into Bay because… Bay, either. Cause again, good movie. Coulda been great, but for, is where I’m at. So I’m a bit harsher.

  9. This film redeemed Bay in my eyes after all that Transformers crap he pulled. One of the better films of 2016 for me.

  10. Thing is, PAIN & GAIN is in its own as tasteless and tacky, if not more so, as the TRANSFORMERSes or BAD BOYS 2, but it feels like a purer dose of Bay, with no interference from Focus Groups, Executives or measured responses from the feedback on his last film. It’s the film Bay was put on this earth to make, and I wouldn’t change an evil minute of the thing.

    I saw 13 HOURS at the cinema and was fairly impressed, but it hasn’t really stayed with me (I’m not the biggest War Film guy in fairness). PAIN & GAIN is his true keeper IMO.

  11. I saw a couple interviews in which two of the contractors, Tanto and Tig, stated they were either told to wait or stand down.

    Unrelated note: Vern, if you or any martial arts fans here haven’t heard of The Final Master, keep an eye out for it. It’s written and directed by the co-writer of The Grandmaster and while it’s more straightforward, the connection to Wong’s movie isn’t surprising. I had no idea it existed until it opened quietly last week in the states.

  12. Thanks for the recommendation Joe. I actually did know about it, but made some poor choices when choosing SIFF movies and subsequent viewings (it’s still playing at an AMC here).

  13. No ACR for a Michael Bay joint?

    Speaking of Bay I recently watched that highway scene from TRANSFORMERS THE 3RD (just that one part though didn’t bother with the rest tbh) and I have to say it kinda blew my mind.

    In terms of pure action filmatism: meaning sequencing, geography, imagination and intensity it was better to me than anything in that piece of shit first movie which is funny since the consensus with the movies is that they kept getting worse as they went along. It seems like Bay actually improved from part 1 to part 3 to me.

    As for this new movie I will give it a shot. Just to see Almost Captain America be a patriotic badass. Actually I also like that Bay is trying to flex his muscles a bit across genre. Challenging himself and getting out of the comfort zone more almost like a real genuine director and not just a guy who shoots amazing looking car chases and explosions.

    Last time he tried that we got PAIN & GAIN and I found that to be a decent time randomly watching HBO when I needed a couple of hours to kill. It was entertaining enough so we’ll see with this one.

  14. I was really skeptical of this because as you said, Bay isn’t known for his deft touch and I was worried that he would completely butcher this story (now granted, I don’t know jack about the Benghazi incident, so I’m not one to comment of its accuracy). But reading this review makes it sound like a decent weekend watch. Will definitely check this out soon.

  15. With everyone complaining about how disappointing 2016 movies have been, I’ll go on record as saying this is a hidden gem and one of the best movies so far this year; it works as a solid action movie, respectable Oscar-bait, and a giant leap for Michael Bay. I actually wonder if his name on it hurt the box office, because this movie is easily superior to Lone Survivor and American Sniper, yet it only grossed a fraction of each movie. This is the first Bay movie where he actually demonstrates an understanding of tone and how to ratchet up suspense, as well as how to create a sense of escalation as the night descends into more and more chaos. And even though he’ll never be known as an “actor’s director”, he pulls some great performances out of his cast (Krasinski’s last scene almost brought me to tears, which I never thought I’d say about a Bay movie).

    Technically it’s a marvel, with eye-popping colors and incredible action scenes. There’s something timeless about the good old-fashioned siege movie setup, like Bay crossed a movie about knights guarding snobby royalty in a castle with a zombie horror movie (The excellent score not-too-coincidentally sounds like a cross between a rah-rah Hans Zimmer military score and a synth-heavy John Carpenter one) And even though there’s a lot of “KEWL” kills, Bay miraculously doesn’t make them Peter Jackson-y. The violence is exciting and over-the-top, but always seems like something a real life soldier would have witnessed.

    I actually got that sense all through the movie, that Bay’s attention to detail on “little things” seems inspired from hours and hours of interviews and anecdotes – the soldiers say and do alot of unusual things that don’t make sense in a vacuum but make the whole movie feel real and authentic. It’s a great movie and I hope Bay can turn over the reigns to the Transformers franchise and start concentrating on making actual films for once.

  16. The politics turned me off to this one.

  17. I am with neal2zod. 13 Hours is one of the better films of 2016.

    The political aspect doesn’t even get mentioned much here.

  18. Yeah I also agree with neal2zod, easily one of the best films of the year for me, definitely in my top 5. I liked more than a couple of things about this, but I’ll just point out two in regard to the “little details” as neal calls them, or the “broad strokes” as interpreted by Majestyk (both are correct) –

    The rec room scene had a few details about the soldiers that I really thought were spot-on.

    1. Boone (The Zen Master) sitting there quietly reading Joesph Campbells’ The Power Of Myth. Bay’s way of giving this guy “depth”. Broad stroke, sure, but a perfect stroke to me.

    2. The guys watching TROPIC THUNDER was so goddamn appropriate because –

    a. It’s Bay’s way of putting some humour into his own film without it being off-color, even if he launches off Stiller’s classic.

    b. The dialogue from the TT scene they showed IS fucking present-day Bay in a nutshell – “I’m just a dude, playin a dude, playin another dude!” The boy artist evolving (hopefully) into a man, while guarding his playful boyishness. Or his boyish playfulness. Or something.

    Usually war movies have that scene where the soldiers are watching another war film. Like in JARHEAD I think they were watching APOCALYPSE NOW? And stuff like that. But Bay pulls a Bay move for some levity, and it totally works this time.

    No irony here. This was a good film.

  19. Just saw this because it became free on Prime. I was surprised how good this is, to say it is the best Michael Bay movie isn’t fair. Performances were great, fantastic action. My criticism I guess would be that it could have been 20 minutes shorter/tighter, we get these guys are heroes and love their families. I thought there was a ton of filler. I think the fact that this made me read up on the actual incident is enough for me to say it was well done.
    It almost seemed to go a bit over board, but it was very respectful to the real people. I thought it was as good if not better than Lone Survivor.
    Writing reviews 4 months too late is the same as a tree falling in the woods with no one there, correct?

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