On the night of September 11-12, 2012, two American compounds in Benghazi, Libya—one an ill-defended consulate and the other a secret CIA base—were attacked and overrun by Libyan extremists, and in the process four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens (American Ambassador to Libya), State Department employee Sean Smith, and two contract security operators named Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed. As everyone knows, the events have since become the stuff of political controversy, as U.S. bases in striking distance of Benghazi were not put into action at the time, and accusations of a mysterious “stand down’ order were circulated in the aftermath. Was there a government cover-up of the events? Was Secretary of State Clinton ultimately at fault in the affair? Or is such speculation purely Republican propaganda?
Michael Bay’s new film, 13 Hours, is the first cinematic treatment of the attacks, and there is some question of whether it may be too soon after the events to have achieved any perspective on the meaning of the incident. But the fact is Bay does not seem interested in such perspective or meaning. To be sure the film, thankfully, takes no overt position on such questions, but leaves them to the politicians. Screenwriter Chuck Hogan’s script was adapted from the 2014 nonfiction bestseller of the same title, a book written by Mitchell Zukoff, a Boston University professor of journalism, based on the accounts of five surviving hired security contractors—essentially paramilitary mercenaries who call themselves “operators”—hired to provide security for the secret CIA annex. The film, like the book, focuses on these five operators—John “Tig” Tiegen, Kris “Tanto” Paronto, Mark “Oz” Geist, Dave “D.B” Benton and Jack Silva, plus Tyrone “Rone” Woods, the operator killed in the attack. Basing his story on the minute-by-minute account in Zukoff’s book, as provided from these operators on the ground during the attacks, Bay notes at the beginning of his film that it is a “true story.” In fact it is true in the same sense that Fox News is “fair and balanced.” Certainly it is “true” by comparison with the Transformer movies that Bay has been making lately. But Bay takes a large number of liberties with the accounts in Zukoff’s book, at one point, for example, turning a bus into a delivery tool for a huge explosive device merely because he wants a big explosion at that point, not because it ever really happened. If truth has to be sacrificed to special effects movie violence, it always seems to be the first thing to go in a Bay film. This is, after all, the same person who made Pearl Harbor seem like a great American victory.
The film is not “true” in the sense that it gives us an exhaustively factual account of a complex situation by providing us with multiple perspectives and a reasoned and logical explanation of the background and the consequences of these events. The truth it tells, if not always strictly by the letter, is the immediate and emotional truth of these events as they directly affected the first responders, six hired security operators. And in this it is quite successful, due largely to solid performances by John Krasinski (as Jack Silva) and James Badge Drake as his former fellow Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods. It is Silva who acts as our focal point as the audience—we are with him when he arrives in Benghazi, with him we meet the other members of the Global Response Staff, it is with him we get used to the job of these security operators: to protect CIA operatives and American diplomats.
The film’s first half acclimates us to Benghazi and to the job of the American security officers. Bay also spends some time manipulating our emotions by showing us Silva’s skyping with his family on various occasions, so that we come to know him as a husband and father, and of course, his wife is pregnant. We also get to see Woods’ calls home, with his own toddler son. It works, of course, so that in the second half of the film, when all hell breaks loose and we are with the two of them on the roof of the CIA compound, under attack, we’re really really hoping that they come out of this alive. After all, they’ve got those kids, right? (The other security officers are fairly indistinguishable, so that you’ll have trouble figuring out who’s who in the battle scenes. Mainly they all merge together into a single attitude: “we’re tough and we know what to do, so get out of our way and let us do it.”)
The second very long half of the movie (there are times when you might think the “13 hours” refers to the length of the film, but that is really only a snappy two hours and twenty-four minutes) chronicles the attacks, which begin at the consulate around 9:40 p.m. on September 11. At the CIA annex a mile away, the six paramilitary operators want to move in to assist the consulate, but are delayed by their CIA chief, “Bob” (David Costabile), who wants to leave the defense and rescue of the ambassador to the local Libyan guards, called the 17 February militia. As you might suspect, this turns out to be a bad idea, and by the time the security team arrives on the scene, they are too late to save the ambassador, who is later brought to a local hospital by friendly Libyans, dead from smoke inhalation as the attackers set fire to the compound.
With consulate and CIA personnel now inside the no-longer-covert annex, the contractors set out to defend their position against three waves of enemy attacks. Outnumbered and waiting for reinforcements from somewhere, the defenders set out to protect their little fortress in a scenario not unintentionally reminiscent of the Alamo. Thus Bay utilizes the nearly archetypal motif of the courageous defenders holding on to the end in a lost cause while defending the right.
Essentially this appears to be Bay’s sole purpose in the film: a celebration of uncommon valor in the face of impossible odds—a situation with universal appeal. There is no doubt that the individuals who engaged in this defense deserve this sort of praise. So Bay is successful in achieving his chief aim.
It’s just that there are other things that bother me about this film. Most obviously, the very simplified world view depicted in the film is disturbing: the first unexamined premise is that Americans are the good guys. While it does appear that Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) has the Libyans’ best interests at heart, no one else in the film makes any distinction between Libyans who might be on “our side” and those who are not—every face in the crowd from the beginning of the film on is seen solely as a possible terrorist. The identityless “Other” is seen as a threat, period. During the chaotic battle scenes throughout the city, the Americans, particularly the contractors, have no idea who is on their side and who is not, and this is no surprise: nothing in this film suggests that any of the contractors has ever made an effort to get to know anything about the people whose country they are inhabiting. They can’t speak the language and they have no feelings about the country or its people. Indeed, as the movie draws to an end Silva expresses his feelings that they may well die here in a place they care nothing about for a cause they don’t understand, and that their deaths will be meaningless.
Perhaps Bay or perhaps some viewers will see this as a condemnation of the U.S. government, which has sent these soldiers here without having any clear policy and in doing so is wasting these soldiers’ lives. But, first, these aren’t soldiers but rather paid security personnel who have taken on this assignment for a $150,000 salary. They are not U.S. military personnel. And secondly, as depicted in the film, these operators have taken no time or trouble to try to understand anything about the place they are in. That’s not their job.
But this is only the most obvious difficulty in the movie. There are hints early on of a particular attitude on the part of the filmmakers. The CIA consulate personnel, whose job it actually is to understand the people of Libya and to try to work out the complex process of putting a fragile democracy together, are people with degrees from Harvard and Yale. In the film, this translates into condescending little pipsqueaks who think they know better than the common sense operators and must be put in their place by an enemy attack on their compound. Then there is the CIA director “Bob”: a weaselly little wimp without a backbone or an idea, who keeps insisting he is in command until told by Woods that this is no longer the case. And then, of course, there’s the real U.S. military and the invisible government, who can’t seem to get anything right and are unable to get it together in time to rescue anybody. That is to say, the only people who have a clue and are in any way competent are the militia. Outside of any chain of command, they don’t need to follow orders—or they can just decide that they are the ones now giving the orders when they decide their commanding officer is wrong. (One wonders if that is why they are in this paramilitary organization and not the real thing, since following orders seems to be outside their natures). If a paramilitary militia is good enough to take over a wildlife sanctuary in Oregon, then by God one is good enough to take over the defense of CIA compound in Benghazi. At least that seems to be Bay’s sub-text.
This film is good for what it’s good for. It celebrates the American heroes of Libya. It gives us action-packed sequences that feel very much like playing a video game. It puts the viewer down in the middle of a chaotic battle where you can’t tell yourself who is on your side and who isn’t. It’s not trying to be a political statement, but in its oversimplification, it’s doctoring of the “truth,” and its clearly anti-intellectual, anti-government, anti-Muslim atmosphere, I can’t help thinking it does more harm than good in its presentation of events. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns—if you want an action movie and you don’t want to bother to think about it, this may be the film for you. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass. Maybe read the book instead.