Andrew Breitbart famously said “politics is downstream of culture”, which is the succinct answer to the not infrequent questions authors like myself get about why we’re taking up space on political news sites like Hot Air with posts about things like movies and video games. Essentially, the stories we share with each other control the way we think about almost everything, and these are some of the most powerful storytelling tools available to us. What people “know” about something can be forever changed after just a couple hours in the theater, and that is why it’s so important to both share those experiences and learn to create them by watching the masters at work.
Until this weekend, the story of the 2012 attack on our consulate in Benghazi has been almost exclusively in the hands of the Obama Administration (and the media, but I repeat myself), who have spun a yarn about faulty intelligence leading them to believe a Youtube video caused a spontaneous protest that turned violent and could not have been prevented or mitigated. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi now puts that story in the hands of Michael Bay.
Like most people familiar with Bay’s work, when I first saw his name in that trailer I snarked about his ability to tackle such a controversial event in recent history. Not only has every film he’s done since Transformers become dumber and less coherent, but I remember sitting through the interminably painful romance that ate up the majority of Pearl Harbor‘s running time. The best I thought we could hope for here was a more competent version of Act of Valor, which conservatives loved, liberals loathed, and I thought just sucked in general.
Much to my surprise, Bay has instead delivered a poignant and harrowing view of the events of September 11, 2012 from the perspective of the people who were there in Benghazi as it unfolded. In fact, 13 Hours is so well constructed that had it not been for some of the usual shots and frenetic editing that distinctly mark the film as one of Bay’s, I would believe he let someone else direct it for him.
However, although those Bay-isms do pop up here and there, most of the things that bother people about his films are either gone or at the very least heavily subdued compared to his movies of late. Instead of jumping right into an explosion fest, Bay starts us off with a brief recap of how we got into Libya in the first place, followed by about an hour of setting the stage for what’s to come that starts with us meeting our team of ex-soldiers contracted to protect the CIA annex. They’re a frustrated and often bored bunch stuck in a base protecting people who don’t seem to appreciate what they do, surrounded by potential threats, and constantly at odds with a boss who seems to consider them more of a liability than anything else.
That boss is the CIA station chief at the annex played by David Costabile, not President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or some kind of caricature of either as you might expect. Other than a snippet of one of Obama’s speeches, they are completely absent from the film, and by leaving them out, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan wisely avoid having the story they are telling sidetracked by political concerns. Instead they are able to hammer home the horrible truths about Benghazi that have thus far been written off as Republican political pandering.
We are shown a woefully unfortified consulate whose defense is left almost entirely in the hands of unreliable Libyan allies. It is not overrun by a protest that got out of hand, and there is pointed dialog noting that fact later in the movie. Rather it is attacked by Islamic militants who spend days casing both it and the CIA annex before they execute a series of clearly coordinated and planned assaults. And more infuriating than anything else, we watch as calls for backup continue to go unheeded for hours, with fighter jets sitting unmanned on the tarmac as the Americans desperately fight to repel waves of well armed terrorists.
Even our heroes are explicitly and repeatedly told to “stand down” despite the frantic pleas from the Consulate that “if you don’t come, we’re going to f*cking die!”
Bound by their conscience, these valiant men defy their orders and go anyway, and that’s when the movie really gets going. From then on it’s a tense, gripping affair that left me quietly seething in anger watching these guys get hung out to dry by a government that couldn’t or wouldn’t send help. Even Bay’s hyper-edited shaky cam, which is somewhat annoying during that first hour of setup, is used to great effect here, reinforcing the feeling of disorientation and uncertainty these guys clearly have to work through. For once not being able to tell who is whom works in the movie’s favor because neither could they at times.
It’s not all action either. There are appropriate moments of unsettling calm, and since it’s Bay, there are jokes peppered throughout, but not of the typical childish variety we normally see from him. We get more of a gallows humor the guys use to break the tension for themselves as much as it does for us, and though the primary focus is on the pseudonymous Jack Silva played by John Krasinski, and Tyrone Woods played by James Badge Dale, 13 Hours has a great ensemble cast making it all work together.
I also have to give props to Lorne Balfe for creating a score that’s reminiscent of the kind of thing Hans Zimmer used to do before Christopher Nolan introduced him to that “BWAAAAH” noise. It really helped sell every moment of this film.
So believe it or not, Michael Bay did it. He not only created a movie with the potential to change how people view the events of that night in Benghazi, but one that’s a legitimately good film in its own right. So 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a 5 on Ed Morrissey’s HotAir scale:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
It’s a powerful and compelling look at an important moment in recent history that’s absolutely worth a couple hours in a theater to know more about the unquestionable heroism displayed by men who were trapped in a hellish situation that was not only foreseeable, but entirely preventable.
I would also note that it earns its R rating for not shying away from showing the blood and guts at the end, so that’s something to be aware of it makes you squeamish.
13 Hours is rated R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language.
For more of what I think about entertainment and politics, follow me on Twitter @crankytrex or check out my other writing at buzzpo.com.