Film Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Saying that this powerful, fact-based action drama about the 2012 Benghazi consulate attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stephens is Michael Bay’s greatest film isn’t actually faint praise.
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That sound you hear while exiting the theatre as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi rumbles to a finish is something like relief. Because the last thing that our panic room of an election season needed was a Michael Bay gasoline bomb getting dumped onto the simmering garbage fire that is the Benghazi investigation. That hasn’t happened. The closest that this bruising but respectful film comes to sounding like a cable-news shouting head is when one character, bemused that the news back home is attributing the attacks to protestors, says matter-of-factly, “We didn’t hear any protests.” Then it’s back to the shooting; we are in Bay country, after all.

Fifteen years after hurting everybody’s brains with Pearl Harbor—which tried to merge his usual beer-ad fantasia with actual events—and almost a decade of near-criminal responsibility for the Transformers series, Bay has cracked the code for making an action film that does justice to the historical record. It’s still too much of a chest-thumper, with languorous shots of beefy warriors and a running theme of sniveling bureaucrats just getting in the way, to mark Bay as the next Paul Greengrass. But his command of space and sparkling cinematography could stand to be emulated by other filmmakers who think that shaky-cam and smash-cuts constitute grit.

The tightly wound film adaptation of Mitchell Zuckoff’s tell-all book is set in 2012, just after the Libyan people, backed by NATO air power, overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. Following the first flush of independence, the country is starting to fracture into today’s militia-ruled state of chaos. A team of ex-military contractors codenamed G.R.S. has been assigned to provide security at a not-so-secret CIA station in Benghazi. It’s a tightknit and smartly cast group, from James Badge Dale’s assertive team leader “Rone” to Pablo Schreiber reveling in the smartass Bill Paxton role as “Tanto” and the Zen quietude of David Denman as the sniper “Boon.” Denman’s “The Office”co-star John Krasinski, normally best at playing cool-under-fire characters with a slashing sense of irony, may have been a poor choice for Jack Silva, the team member tasked with most of the emotional heavy-lifting in this gruff but genial group.

After a brief introduction to the setting and the main players, the story jumps to September, when new Libyan ambassador Chris Stephens (Matt Letscher) arrives at the American consulate not far from the CIA station. For anybody not familiar with what happened, Chuck Hogan’s script provides plenty of bad-vibe foreshadowing, from the consulate’s cut-rate security (“This is some real dot-gov shit,” grumbles one of the G.R.S. team) to the skittish amateur “17th of February” militiamen providing backup. The oversaturated colors of Dion Beebe’s cinematography and the almost-too-lush seaside desert setting (nearby Malta substituting for Libya) are lulling at first, like an Anthony Bourdain travel special with high-caliber weaponry.

When the siege begins, the film slams into action and keeps it rattling along at a blistering pace. The extremist militias appear almost out of nowhere—an unexplained turn of events that mirrors the Americans’ lack of insight into the situation. Once the consulate is assaulted, the G.R.S. team scraps with the CIA station chief, Bob (the reliably weasely David Costabile), who insists that they don’t have any authority to intervene. That excuse rattles up and down a chain of command fractured between the State Department and the CIA, neither of whom seem to have any clue about how to resolve the crisis, and the Pentagon, which has assets stationed nearby but, according to the film, wouldn’t deploy without orders.

As the minutes tick past without outside rescue, the G.R.S. team mounts a desperate attempt to save the ambassador. The chaos of the situation is superbly handled, with the team having just as little idea as the viewers which of the men running through the streets with AK-47s are friendly and which are enemies. Their uncertainty and the occasional interruption of reality, like Jack losing his contact lens, hews closer to a more realistic modern combat film like Lone Survivor than one of Bay’s superheroes-with-guns films.

The last third or so is a classically structured, white-knuckle set-piece in which the team establishes an Alamo-like defense of the CIA station against successive waves of extremists who materialize out of the darkness like wraiths. Throughout, Bay interleaves GoPro point-of-view shots and handheld firefight intimacy with swooping overhead shots that provide depth of field and context.

The extent of Bay’s unexpectedly mature approach comes near the end, with a brief and humanizing scene of Libyan women keening over the bodies of the men who died attacking the Americans. 13 Hours is an ooo-rah story for sure, celebrating hired warriors above pencil-pushers. But it also has an awareness of tragedy and regret, particularly in the sober coda, that’s all too rare in the Call of Duty era.

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