With his trademark bombast, Michael Bay addresses the tragedy of Benghazi with great attention to the details of battle, and only the most superficial of attitudes towards everything else. Based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff that recounted the 2012 attack by local insurgents on the temporary American embassy and the CIA station in that Libyan city, it uses Special Ops contractor Jack Silva (John Krasinkski) as our expository device, as well as the less effective device to involve us emotionally. Alas, the pandering is so blatant, and so rife with clichés, that the impulse it provokes is to actively resist rather than to succumb. To make matters worse, the politics of the piece are troublesome, fraught as they are with stereotypes that appeal to the worst in us, an effect that Bay attempts to counter with a band-aid of a coda designed to assure us that everything we have just seen was an anomaly. He makes no attempt, however, to reconcile the dramatic liberties taken in 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI with the actual facts of what happened.
Jack is newly arrived in Benghazi as the film begins, just after the on-screen summary has informed us of Gaddafi’s fall from power, and the general lawlessness that has replaced the dictator’s repressive regime. He is met at the ruins of the local airport by his old pal Rone (James Badge Dale), who fills him in on the situation in Benghazi in particular, and the workings of the special CIA station where they will be serving. It’s also a chance for them to fill us in on why they are there, which would be money. Contractor, mercenary. Potato, potato. As Jack will opine later, during the de rigeur introspective monologue during a lull in the fighting that comprises the bulk of the film, he doesn’t care about this country. He does care about the slump in which the real estate business is in, and having that tree removed from his front yard, both of which are sapping his financial strength.
Jack cares even less about Libya when he meets the CIA station chief, Bob (David Costabile), a supercilious little prig with no respect for the team of ex-Army Rangers and ex-Navy Seals who are there to protect him. They may know their military strategy, but did they go to an Ivy League school? The new guy’s first mission, pretending to be a CIA agent’s husband while she meets a potential contact, confirms his lack of enthusiasm for how the government runs things. The agent (Alexia Barlier), an icy and condescending blonde who apparently doesn’t understand the reason why there is a need for the military in what is commonly agreed to be the most dangerous place on earth, pretty much sums up the film’s attitude towards women. Intelligent, except for that blind spot), competent, and anything but deferential when confronted with sweaty testosterone, she will become the siege equivalent of a flight attendant when the station comes under attack, scampering across rooftops in order to bring candy bars and a worshipful smile to those she so recently scorned. In other words, learning her place in the order of things and being darned grateful for being placed there.
Is it a surprise to find this in an action film that seeks to give its viewer the experience of a first-person shooter video game? Not really. At least they didn’t find a reason to strip her down to a tank top and shorts. Far more troubling is the stereotype assigned to the Arabs. They are all excitable, angry, stupid, or a combination thereof. They are also never to be trusted, except for those few who kowtow with appropriate reverence, bowing with the bland smile of an idiot child at whatever Caucasian is nearby.
As for the action sequences, the raison d’etre for this, they are superb, combining the fog of war and the surreal moments of a city as a battleground, a city where armed combatants pass open doors through which are glimpsed Benghazis watching television. Bay, known for his abiding love for blowing things up real good, shows an uncharacteristic restraint. Sure, things explode, cars are chased, and munitions of all sorts are fired with wild abandon, but not every five minutes. In fact, there is little to none of that in the first half-hour or so of the film. When all heck breaks loose, though, it’s with slick camera angles, quick cuts, and frenetic energy, all the better to show off the laconic nature of our contractors. They of the steely-eyed squint and the ready quip in the face of certain death, they may break a physical sweat there in the heat of a desert battle, but never in the metaphorical sense. Their guard is lowered only when talking via computer screen to the loved ones back home, the wife and kids for whom they live and breathe. And, of course, they have their most meaningful, emotionally portentous conversations mere moments before the call comes in that the ad hoc embassy is under attack, and the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), is trapped.
Does the CIA station chief send the brave contractors off to save him post haste? Did he do anything about the warnings they had given him about the faulty security at the residence being used by Stevens? Does he see the big picture about what will happen if the temporary embassy falls? Of course not. He fumbles. The contractors take command, and the rest of the film’s hour or so of running time is them fending off the hordes of angry Libyans storming both official entities. Darn those pointy-headed intellectuals who refuse to let the real men do their jobs.
The story behind 13 HOURS is a compelling one, and not just because of the stand-off. Romanticizing combat by removing the complexity of it is a cheap way of honoring the men who did battle, and a cheap shot at the CIA officers whose lives were also on the line. What’s even cheaper is the way Stevens is portrayed, given the lip service of being described as a true believer in making things better for the Libyans, he’s also held up as hopelessly naïve, a genuine smile in a nice suit, but with no real savvy. It’s as infuriating as the news footage tacked on at the end, showing Libyans massing in mourning for what happened, and expressing their sympathy for the American loss of life. When a film has gone out of its way to denigrate an entire population, who does it think it’s fooling with a sop like that?