“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a movie by Michael Bay of “Pearl Harbor” infamy. He based the movie on the book by Michael Zuckoff. He interviewed several of the characters in the movie. Three of them (Kris “Tanto” Paranto, John “Tig” Tiegsen, and Mark “Oz” Geist) vetted the script and served as technical advisers. The movie was filmed in Malta. The Annex and the compound were accurately recreated. The movie ended up as Bay's least successful endeavor. It is also his least bull shit film. Now you know what the movie-going public wants.
The movie begins with one of the lengthiest background information lead-ins I have ever seen. But our current events challenged society needs the background and it is informative. In a good sign, the intro is relatively neutral. It makes it clear the movie will be about the “six elite military operators” that defended a covert CIA base. “This is a true story”. Yeah, we’ve heard that before.
Dan Silva (a buff, bearded John Krasinski) is a contractor (mercenary to people who insist on political incorrectness) who is leaving his wife and kids to do one last job (are any of them not “the last job”?) in Libya. Before landing, he takes off his wedding ring. My first thought was: OMG, Jim is going to cheat on Pam! Actually it is to hide his status from the terrorists. Huh? Silva is greeted by a bud named “Rone” (a first-billed James Dale). The ride to the compound features a Libyan stand-off that is used to establish that Silva is no longer in Kansas and his new boss CIA desk jockey “Bob” is a stereotypical war movie bureaucratic wuss/dick. In other words, the exact opposite of Rone’s team of bon homie badasses. Bob has the heavy burden of representing the entire bungling government, including the never mentioned Hillary Clinton.
A visit by bleeding heart Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) comes at a bad time considering Benghazi is a hell mouth. (The movie does not cover how low a campaign contribution you have to give to get his gig.) Mr. Chips decides he wants to stay in the Annex which is the equivalent of a listening post in the Verdun no man’s land. But at least he has two overconfident and underqualified security guards. And the local militia guarding the perimeter. What could happen, right? Certainly nothing on the anniversary of 9/11. Right?
Sept. 11, 2012 opens with Silva calling his wife and finding out she is pregnant! Why do people call their wives in war movies? Does he want to provoke the hell mouth? If so, mission accomplished because here the hajis come. It’s like the Alamo, but with no Davy Crockett. Or any other Texans. When Rone and his boys learn the Ambassador is in danger, they want to rush to his aid. Unfortunately, “Bob” tells them to “stand down”. They go anyway. Let the combat porn begin!
The team makes a drive to the Annex that is straight out of “Black Hawk Down”. You can’t tell the good Libyans from the bad, except that the bad ones are shooting at you. They reach the Annex and we get a little breather before the volume goes up again. Next, there is the Bayesque wild ride back to the compound. Imagine “Fast and Furious” with more gunfire. It’s now time for the “Zulu” reenactment. We started with six mercs – the over/under is four for this particular “last stand” movie.
“13 Hours” has no glaring weaknesses. It tells a true story that deserves to be told and it does it in an informative and entertaining way. It is surprisingly light on politics. This must have disappointed Republicans as much as Oliver Stone’s “W” disappointed the Democrats. Bay is mostly interested in lionizing the contractors who fought off the hordes. The movie is mostly about macho heroes and a FUBAR situation He does not really take a stand on the controversies surrounding the incident. There are some allusions to those controversies, but the movie is not heavy-handed. It is more of a standard action picture than a political thriller. In fact, the script cobbles together several common war movie tropes - the running gun battle, the last stand, the red-tape loving ass-coverer, etc. There’s nothing in this movie you have not seen before, but it is done competently. The cinematography by Dion Beebe has a nice variety. The dialogue by Chuck Hogan can best be described as manly. The score is what you would expect from this kind of movie and is actually fairly restrained.
The cast is not A-List, but it does not need to be. There is not a lot of acting required. Krasinski was the big get for the casting director and he is adequate. He plays Silva as a morose individual who is not very enthusiastic about this job. He is certainly not the adrenalin junkie that most soldiers of fortune are portrayed as. There is little character development and it is sometimes hard to tell the heroes apart, especially during the night fighting. The screenplay throws in a few tired clichés. “Bob” is a cartoonish bureaucratic wimp. There is also a blonde spy who starts off sneering at the warriors, but ends up respecting them. And there is the likeable Libyan interpreter who represents the “good” natives.
The movie will of course be most remembered for its action sequences. You get what you expect from Bay, but it’s not like he’s the only director that has adopted the over-the-top depiction of modern combat that goes back to “Saving Private Ryan”. Since that revolutionary opening scene in SPR, directors have tried to depict combat realistically. Some, like Ridley Scott in “Black Hawk Down”, have been successful. Others have adopted the mantra that extreme combat equals realistic combat. In other words, the more hellish the action and violence, the closer you get to proving war is hell. What they don’t understand is it is possible to go too far and veer into super hero territory. “13 Hours” is somewhere between SPR and “Hacksaw Ridge”. There are no moments that cause a war movie fanatic to laugh out loud, but you just know there was not nearly as much ammo expenditure, explosions, and bloodshed in the actual firefights. The graphic wounds are certainly appropriate to war. We do love to see human equivalents of zombies get slaughtered.
I feel a little sorry for Bay with regard to the lack of box office success for the film. My theory is word got out to his general audience that the movie was not a “Transformers” sequel and the rabid Hillary haters found out it was not red meat. This is a shame for Bay because the movie is not bad. It may exaggerate the heroics, but the men were real heroes and they get their due. In this respect, the movie reminds of “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper”. Not as good, but comparable.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: How accurate is it? Let’s start by assuring you that it ain’t “Pearl Harbor”. The background information is a good summary of the situation going into Sept. 11, 2014. Although, oddly the footage shows Gaddafi’s capture before it shows the air strikes that helped contribute to his demise. The main characters are all real individuals with “Bob” being a representation of the actual CIA chief who remains unidentified. The setup of the Annex and the compound are true to life. The circumstances of Ambassador Stevens death are accurate in the big picture. The Annex was woefully insecure and the security detail was laughable. The "February 17th Martyr's Brigade" militia that was supposed to defend the perimeter did run away at the first sound of gunfire. The script gives a plausible version of what transpired when members of Ansar al-Sharia stormed the site. Stevens did go to a safe room, but the jihadists did set the building on fire. The movie has Bob giving a “stand down” order, thus siding with the critics of the State Department and CIA. This theory was debunked by the Benghazi Committee, but eyewitnesses, including the technical advisers insist they were told to wait. The movie does not really address the State Departments decision to turn down requests for more security at the Annex. While the attack on the Annex is accurate, the ingress of the contractors to search for Stevens was by armored vehicle and was not a hellish run through a gauntlet and there were no attacks while they were there. They did take fire on the way back. The assaults on the compound are basically true, but shall we say “enhanced”. There was an attack at 12:30 and one at 2:30. Both lasted about ten minutes. The mortar attack around 5 A.M. that killed Rone and Glen was well done. Another controversy the movie touches on is the supposedly criminally tardy air support. That also has been debunked. Overall, I would give the film a B for accuracy.