13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is an extremely engaging film with seductive barracks’ wit, well-done action sequences, and calculated appeal to the apolitical moviegoer. Yes, some of the humor is typical Michael Bay juvenilia, regurgitating old locker-room jokes about nagging women or premature fiascos. And yes, flair explosions are still used in scenes that neither need nor call for them. And yes, upon hearing about initial news reports of the embassy attack, one of the military personnel assigned to guarding the compound quips, “There were no protests.” However, considering director Bay’s track record of completely whiffing on based-on-true-event stories and the fact that, in general, his films are nothing but vehicles for vicarious masculinity, 13 Hours stands up surprisingly well. It is Bay to excess, but not in the least like the ordinary excessive Bay. Where it fails requires a bit of nuance and finesse—it also requires acknowledging that it’s become a bit of a pastime for pseudo-sophisticated viewers to ridicule Michael Bay for the criminal negligence of not making films with them in mind.
Going to see 13 Hours, the Benghazi story is either so well-known by now as to reach the level of creepy or so little understood as to reach the level of intentional ignorance. On September 11, 2012, a group of Libyans attacked an American diplomatic compound (we learn in the film that it isn’t technically an “embassy” for bureaucratic and budgetary reasons, but it is the residence of an ambassador, so…) as well as a nearby CIA “annex.” What the CIA annex was doing in Benghazi—selling off Muammar Gaddafi’s old weapons stockpile to Turkey and Syrian rebels perhaps?—is never explicitly addressed. For the first hour of the film, the six contractors play bodyguard to a young, beautiful, and French Exxon Oil negotiator who sees them as little more than a burdensome formality—that is, until actual danger arrives. She tries twice sitting down with an oil merchant and his wife to talk business, both times being cut short by the contractors out of security concerns.
The diplomatic compound is attacked first. Inadequately equipped to defend itself, a point of contention in the real-world political melodrama that followed the attacks, it’s quickly overrun. The main building is set ablaze with security personnel, embassy staff, and the ambassador still inside. The six contractors at the CIA annex can see the flames from where they’re located—roughly only a mile away from the compound. All six want to act, but they receive a stand-down order from their CIA chief. Representing bureaucratic ineptitude, the CIA chief (David Costabile) is portrayed as a careerist, a platitudinarian, and a coward. One of the more eye-rolling scenes in the film is the cinematic juxtaposition between the chief lecturing one of the operators for failure to obey his command (or something equally bureaucratic and tedious), while another operator flips a monster truck tire just outside the window behind him. The manly grunts harmonized with the pencil-pusher’s finger wags. It doesn’t take much to make fun of the career man the film has in mind, so when way more than necessary is done toward that end, it looks clumsy and comes off as tone-deaf.
After twenty-five minutes the contractors finally get the green light to attempt a rescue mission. All six are men with families, all six are scheduled to leave Benghazi in the next day or so, and all six volunteer for the mission. They eventually get to the compound and conclude that the ambassador and another member of the staff are dead from the main building fire. They round up the remaining survivors and hightail it back to the annex. Fortified there they fight off wave after wave of combatants until help finally arrives. During the battle, a mortar shell explodes on the roof of one of the buildings, killing two of the contractors: Tyrone S. Woods (James Badge Dale) and Glen Doherty (Toby Stephens). It’s confirmed while they’re still fighting that ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) and information manager Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli) were in fact killed. Leaving four dead.
Why spend so much time summarizing the story? Especially one based on recent and true events? Well, because the story it’s based on is the film’s most redeeming factor. Despite what other reviewers will tell you, 13 Hours is not well-acted nor is it character-driven. Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski from The Office) is notionally the main character, but he’s neither fleshed out nor relatable. Tyrone is the fallen hero of the movie, but most of his screen time is wasted on either arguing with the chief or smirking at other characters’ one-liners. And no one outside the six contractors is anything but a stereotype from the courage and carnage crowd. Oddly enough, it’s two of the more minor roles that are most intriguing. One is John “Tig” Tiegen (Pablo Schreiber), the funny, young guy of the group, wearing shorts to the apocalypse and constantly reminding their timid Libyan translator to stop unintentionally pointing his gun at him. The other is Boon (David Denman), the bookish and stoical elder-statesman-like sniper who spends his downtime reading Joseph Campbell. Tyrone asks him at one point to summarize the book he’s reading, to which Boon replies, “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.” If only less energy had been exhausted showing just how inane the chief was, or how incompetent military management was, perhaps this could’ve been shown rather than told.
So what of the nuance and finesse? There are two types of war movies: those that are pro-war and those that are pro-warrior. An example of the latter is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Examples of the former are truly too numerous to bother. The issue with pro-warrior movies, however, is that they always end up being pro-war movies, because the warrior is so romanticized and the non-warrior so contemptible. 13 Hours falls into this same thematic trouble, but it lacks the moral ambiguity of an American Sniper. There is no moment like in that Clint Eastwood film when Chris Kyle is told by another marine that if Iraq were his country, he’d be one of the people out there throwing stones. War is a racket, but being a soldier is the supreme good. Without that, moral ambiguity subtly alchemizes into moral chaos.