In 2014, a group of American security contractors who’d worked in Benghazi, Libya, at the time of the September 11, 2012 attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans collaborated with writer Mitchell Zuckoff on a book called 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. Although the contractors (two of whom used pseudonyms) pinned much of the blame for the tragic debacle on the CIA, particularly the chief of a covert compound a mile from the ambassador’s residence, it joined a growing number of books avidly embraced by political foes of the Obama administration and its then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, soon to gear up for a White House run. That many of the “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” whoopers couldn’t find Libya on a map didn’t matter. They had a House with the votes to convene yet another committee to grill Clinton before the cameras and find nothing actionable. They had right-wing TV and radio. And now they have a movie.
They might be disappointed, insofar as Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi doesn’t mention Clinton and barely alludes to the president, who at one point is said to have been briefed on the unfolding horror. But they have something almost as useful: a ham-handed but grueling and often effective portrait of men forced to fight a near-impossible battle, martyrs to government incompetence and Muslim extremists, men who show bravery and skill and supreme grace under fire.
The film is told almost completely from the vantage of these ex-military contractors, hired to work for the CIA, not the U.S. ambassador. That leads to some confusion. Despite a long, long pre-credit title crawl purporting to explain the U.S. presence in Libya, 13 Hours never makes it clear enough that the secret CIA base had no official connection to the ambassador’s residence. Early on, some of the contractors pay a visit to that residence and predict that it’s so poorly defended that any attack would be a slaughter. They find the security detail — half-awake Libyans plus two guys (played by Demetrius Grosse and David Giuntoli) with finicky mustaches (as opposed to their own bushy beards) — out of their depth. Every word they utter in the course of the movie is shown to be right, of course. It’s a two-hour, “I told you so.”
The lead actors — John Krasinski as Jack Silva (a pseudonym), James Badge Dale as Tyrone “Rone” Woods, Pablo Schreiber as Kris “Tanto” Paronto, David Denman as Dave “Boon” Benton, Dominic Fumusa as John “Tig” Tiegen, and Max Martini as Mark “Oz” Geist — are intense as all get-out, although I confess that big-bearded, muscled-up white male actors of a certain age with similar acting styles look alike to me, especially in front of Dion Beebe’s jittery, handheld camera. Krasinski is easier to spot given his black hair and distinctive nose. He’s the one who has just arrived and is puzzled by his own presence. It’s just that, you see, he can’t quit war, despite the pleadings of his wife and the tender longing of his beautiful little daughters, to whom he talks often. (“Daddy, what do you do when go to work?”) Damned if there wasn’t a screw-up and his life insurance has lapsed — a broad stroke, but nothing compared to Denman’s reading aloud from Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero’s Journey. We hear Campbell’s description of a hero twice more. It’s tough being a movie hero these days. Used to be you went out and did heroic stuff. Now you have to deconstruct it, too.
David Costabile, best known as Gale in Breaking Bad and now the go-to actor for prissy-bitch bureaucrats, is the CIA base chief — the non-terrorist villain. He tells the skeptical Roe and Silva and Tanto, “You’re not CIA, you’re hired help. Act the part.” He goes on to say that the people calling the shots went to Harvard and Yale. Gosh, Harvard and Yale. Following a car chase, one of the contractors tells a CIA agent, “I might not have gone to Harvard but I’m pretty sure that was a tail!” It’s that CIA base chief who refuses to let our heroes head to the ambassador’s residence at the first and even second and third sign of an attack, claiming that it’s the Libyans’ jurisdiction. The account has been challenged by anonymous government officials, but the movie doubles down. Our heroes finally have to show insubordination to leave the base — but of course arrive at the ambassador’s residence too late.
How are the Libyans portrayed? Not well. They’re certainly not grateful for the U.S. help in liberating them from Gaddafi’s tyranny. At best they’re an enigma. At second best, they’re cowards — like the police who take off just before the attacks, presumably having been warned to amscray. At worst, they’re faceless “zombies” bearing weapons who melt out of the smoke and darkness — and on whom the contractors can’t fire at first for fear of killing “friendlies.” That’s the scariest part, when they just don’t know who’s a friend or foe and the base chief on the walkie-talkie can’t tell them. In those moments, you understand that these men aren’t just forced to take terrifying physical risks but emotional and psychological ones. A wrong choice could lead to their deaths or to prison for killing an ally or civilian. (No mention is made of the moral horror of taking the life of an innocent person, though.)
Bay and cinematographer Beebe deliver some brilliant images, the light is a mix of soft blues and hard, slashing yellows and oranges from fires and explosions. But those images don’t always cut together, and it’s hard to get a sense of where everything is in relation to everything else. The battle scenes are loud and jangly and dissonant enough to unnerve you — they work. But I’d like to see a congressional committee grill Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan about what’s going on half the time. One moment we hear that U.S. planes are leaving Croatia and then we hear nothing, and you can’t always tell if it’s the fog of war or the fog of Michael Bay or both. Hogan wrote The Town and some more-than-decent thriller novels. I’d like to think he had nothing to do with the signature Bay overkill shot of a photo of a character’s wife and child that, after a mortar hit, flutters in front of the camera like a falling leaf.
What does 13 Hours tell us? That in the view of its protagonists, the Benghazi attack was planned weeks in advance and had little to do with the stupid anti-Muslim movie that popped up on YouTube. But the Obama administration copped to getting that wrong once its own investigative committee did its job — a long time ago. The film says the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon are perilously uncoordinated — big news. It says incredibly brave and good men (including the naively idealistic ambassador) lost their lives because a group of officials didn’t act quickly enough — incomprehensibly awful, even if it pales beside such criminal blunders as the occupation of Iraq and, for that matter, the failure to act in the face of innumerable warnings prior to September 11, 2001.
In any case, 13 Hours has dropped. Now we have to wait for the fallout.