“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (2016): Thrilling Heroics (Review)

This movie is as political as the Benghazi controversy in general is. It comes with the territory, but the film is neither peddling for a party nor coddling conspiracy theories. Apologists for the Obama Administration or Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will hate this film before they see it on the sole basis of its existence. At the same time, conservative reactionaries and alarmists will staple its poster to their banner of anti-Clinton advocacy, and hope for a lasting impact.

But the debate over President Obama, Susan Rice, or Hillary Clinton’s culpability is for citizens in forums elsewhere. For purposes of this review, I am a critic first, and I want that clear before proceeding.

To be sure, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi does not shy away from noting certain facts that will be damning to certain political factions, but it doesn’t do that just for the dog-whistle points. When an operative informs the others that the State Department is aware that this is an attack by Ansar al-Sharia, or when another operative notes that he heard through the grapevine of the news that there was some video, it’s all in the service of letting us know that our heroes really are on their own. I’m sure some will note the dubious voice-over of President Obama’s speech praising the Arab Spring alongside real footage of the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi, but again that’s just there to make note that Benghazi, Libya is a dangerous place to be.

The film begins with Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski)’s arrival to Benghazi as a security operative for the CIA. He reunites with an old war buddy Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), and the two have an old-west standoff with Islamist street thugs before they even get to the compound. It’s like summer camp, but with the added requirement of security chauffeuring bleeding heart diplomats and social workers. Soulful earnestness abounds, in the classic Michael Bay sense of the word. These ex-military types are great guys with families they miss. The people they’re protecting are well-meaning elitists but innocent in their naïveté. Then there’s the Chief, who is a bureaucrat. He gets along with our big gruff teddy bears as well as you think.

Things are mostly fine until everyone learns of the impending arrival of Ambassador Chris Stevens delays their departure by a day. He’s the real deal, but with a nonchalant sense of security. And when the 9/11 anniversary hits… well, you know the rest. If you don’t, look it up.

Or see the movie.

That’s the thing about 13 Hours. It’s quite good at documenting what happened, and it illustrates the layout of both Stevens’s hotel and the CIA Annex well enough so that you’ll know exactly what’s going on where. Bay takes his time with all of this, but it’s an action movie, and there’s plenty of it. The story also makes this relatively easy for Bay to do what he does best – make fist-bumping badasses out of basic good guys – without reducing the gravitas. There is seemingly no end to the swarm of jihadists cascading upon the compounds like rats, but our boys, once finally cleared to be the heroes (the Chief’s noncompliance with the immediate needs of the Ambo is another problem), hold them fast. I’d have liked to hear a grumble or two about how someone was running out of ammo, just as an extra gimme on the stakes of time, but that’s just me.

In the Michael Bay movie sense, this is pretty cut and dry. He was clearly born to make this kind of movie, and it’s refreshing to see his remarkable basic filmmaking talents (and they are indeed considerable, despite what many will say), technical chops, and flag-waving, military-saluting habits to real use, instead of cramming them into movies that are supposed to be about combat robots. Yet his cognizable artistic stamp is actually less present here than most of his other films. There are as many scenes of the American flag’s desecration as there are of its display. The reverse-rotating camera track of a mortar shell that is of a style you’ve seen in Bay’s other work is done only once, and the movie even holds back on some of the violence until the end.

As far as the action itself goes, I couldn’t believe that Bay was only working with a $50 million budget. It certainly doesn’t look that small. The action is crisp, loud, and rapid, and Bay may even have amped up the frame rate during the firefights to heighten the realism (if this observation turns out to be true, I’m obliged to credit my friend John for noticing it). There include as many fires and white-hot explosions as he can realistically get away with, but that realism is clearly what he’s going for here. He even threw John Krasinski into a real building fire in order to get right their attempt at rescuing Stevens. The actors’ bold willingness to go the distance in that regard to honor the men they’re playing will no doubt be appreciated by the military and their families.

And that’s really all this film is getting at. If you’re wondering why this film was made or needed to exist, the only answer I suggest to you is that the likely political premise your question carries is exactly the sort of thing 13 Hours simply doesn’t care for. You might as well also ask why the book behind it was written too. The answer is the same. Like I said a year ago in my American Sniper breakdown, this film may be appreciated by everyone, but it’s really for the men who were there, their families, and members of the military that can identify with the nightmare.

But as a movie overall, yeah, it’s kind of awesome. Check it out.

Overall: 8.5/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • rich

    “I’d have liked to hear a grumble…” should be “I would have liked to have heard a grumble…”

    Excellent placement of “but that’s just me.”

    I can’t agree that this film or American Sniper was made for the families. Films are made to make money, pure and simple. Thus, they need to appeal to wide audiences. They’re made for wide audiences, which may or may not include the families. It’s a business, not a video tribute.

  • Wow, a Michael Bay film worthy of an 8.5? From Vivek?

    *whistles as Satan skates to work*

    Sounds like this is a must-see.

  • Vivek

    I mean that in the artistic sense, not the commercial one. The producers fund for returns and enable the marketing to ensure it. The director is actually making the movie. This and “Sniper” are very much about using the art to give a hats off to the families. They just wouldn’t have been produced or released everywhere if that was the only goal. Still, the two do not conflict.

  • Vivek

    As far as I’m concerned, nothing he did before “Pain and Gain” really matters all that much anymore as far as judging the man as a filmmaker. We all know he can blow stuff up and make a big money blockbuster, but it’s honestly pretty rote at this point to just be looking at him like he’s just Uwe Bowl (spl?) but with a tech skill. The dude has some real chops, and they’re on full display here.