“Welcome to Benghazi.”
It shouldn’t matter what your politics might be. The events in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 bring up some very important questions. Contrary to one 2016 presidential hopeful’s declaration, it does make a difference. It did to the people who were there. It does for the families of the four who lost their lives. And it should make a difference to you. With such a political hotbed issue, you’ll find that 13 Hours goes out of its way to avoid the political questions. Some might view this as an oversight, but I think it gives the film a greater sense of credibility and makes its impact on the audience to fill in their own political blanks.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is based on a book by Mitchell Zuckoff and based on the actual accounts of the six soldiers who defied orders and acted during the conflict. Both the book and the film are able to avoid the direct political questions by remaining true to its mission. The film only explores those things that these six heroes could have known at the time. There’s no mention of Hilary Clinton, who was Secretary of State during the disaster. We’re merely told that Obama has been briefed early during the conflict. There are no accusations or judgments in the telling. In reference to the video controversy, there is only one line delivered by one of the six. He is told that there’s been some blame on a video and that these were protests. He merely states that he doesn’t know anything about a video, but he didn’t see any protesters. The only mention of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ documented pleas for help comes in a short moment while the ambassador is writing in his journal, and we’re not hit over the head with any of those political hot potatoes. But you may leave the film with some strong political feelings. The beauty of the film is that they will come through your own visceral interpretation of what you’ve seen and whatever moral or ethical questions you find yourself asking. They aren’t provided for you, and you are not told how to judge the events. But you will anyway. I think it’s impossible not to.
The film begins as we’re introduced to the CIA contractors. They have a bit of a faceoff in the street that doesn’t turn violent but has the potential. It’s more like a Jedi mind trick as the bad guys are pretty much told that these are the droids they’re looking for. It has nothing to do with the ultimate events of the film but sets up the toughness of these guys and their conflict with the CIA bureau chief who makes no secret of the disdain he has for the grunts and muscle. “Bob” is played by Davis Costabile, who does a wickedly convincing job of the elitist CIA operative who has no respect for the security force. Of course, things change when he eventually depends on them for his own life. If the film has a weakness it is that it takes too long to set up these relationships and get to the action we know is coming. Director Michael Bay may have overplayed his hand here in the time and effort he uses to make that point.
Once the action starts, Michael Bay is comfortably in his own element. We’ve come to expect carnage on a grand scale with a director who is known for how well he can blow stuff up. As much as his Transformer style can be found here, let’s not forget that Michael Bay also gave us Pearl Harbor, which did a wonderful job of blending these explosive scenes with emotional human interest. In case we’ve forgotten, Bay reminds us of Pearl Harbor by repeating one of his most famous elements of that 2001 film. There we followed a bomb downward to its destructive destination. In 13 Hours, Bay pays himself a bit of homage by repeating the effect with a mortar shell. The gag works, and Bay should be forgiven a little self-indulgence here.
That’s because this is actually a subtle film for Bay. Not that there aren’t shattering explosions and some of the most intense firefight scenes you’ll see. But more because he brings us so much more intimately into the action and allows it to fit into a tapestry that serves more of a story. Again, it’s more Pearl Harbor than Transformers. Still some of this stuff is just too exciting. Trees burn throughout the battle. Cars are exploded end-over-end. One car just makes it back to camp with its tires completely engulfed in flame as they roll to a stop just inside the temporary net of safety.
With all of the elements of a traditional war/battle film, Bay does not take the traditional route. So all of the elements are there, but this feels like a different kind of film. Bay uses horror film beats and atmosphere more often than that of war. As the bad guys amass in an area appropriately called zombie land, you get that feel from the lighting and staging of the attack. We see fleeting shadows and often lumbering enemies in a landscape that looks very much like one of those last stands in a show like The Walking Dead. Bay utilizes something akin to jump scenes before the all-out firefight. He definitely teases us in the grand tradition of a John Carpenter. He also gets a lot of mileage out of severe damage to a soldier’s lower arm and hand. It’s a creepy effect that he might go to once too often. It’s as messed up or gory as anything you’ll see in a zombie film. Bay uses a higher frame-rate during the battles. It gives it that video look. Some might find it a distraction. I did take notice of it enough to take me out of the film a couple of times.
Max Martini is the best of a solid crew of actors playing the brave six. He has just the right touch of Marine commanding presence and humanity. The brotherhood between the men comes through quite well, so by the time their backs are against it we know the distance they’ll go for each other. Every one of us would take any of these guys to watch our backs in any situation. They exude a level of confidence and duty that makes it even harder to understand why “Bob” would even have the guts to order them to stand down. I’ve watched the survivors interviewed on various shows of late, and it appears the casting truly nails these guys from their mannerisms to the way they carry themselves. Black Sails’ Captain Flint, Toby Stephens, plays Doherty,who is the leader of the team that finally does come to offer limited help.
Every American should see this film. It should be required viewing in every political science class in America. Again, you just can’t leave the theatre without asking some important questions. I don’t care what political party you belong to. The difference it makes, for the benefit of the candidate who posed the question, is that something like this can’t happen again. When we put brave men and women in danger, we owe them at least to pick up the dang phone when they’re in trouble. Never again can we allow political necessity to leave Americans in a position like this. It amazes me that we all can’t agree on at least that point. Maybe seeing the film will drive it home for you. Maybe someone out there will see this film and answer their own question with a “that’s what difference it makes” epiphany. I doubt it, but I’d like to believe it anyway. Of course, I still believe in superheroes and Santa Claus. Well… the jury’s still out on Santa, but the six guys who risked their careers and their lives to save strangers? Looks like I was right about the superheroes. To the politicians who consider these losses the price of doing business, I can only say: “You can’t put a price on being able to live with yourself.”