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Bomb Bay Film Making

Paramount Pictures
 146 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed byMichael Bay 
Starring: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale
13 Hours

“Everyone” knows that anti-American forces overran the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, resulting in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Many people have formed opinions as to the reasons behind the attack and the degree of culpability of those responsible for securing our embassies abroad. What few people know is exactly how that attack occurred. Now, director Michael Bay tells the story in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Leaving out the politics, it’s a battle story as amazing as any ever portrayed, and Bay, when he sticks to the nuts and bolts of the action, has done about as good a job of portraying that action as possible.


13 Hours depicts the “battle of Benghazi” primarily from the point of view of a handful of elite American ex-military troops who were hired as security contractors by the CIA. The Agency maintained its own heavily fortified compound about a mile from the diplomatic compound where Stevens, normally stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, was spending the night while meeting with local leaders. Since the fall of the Qadaffi regime several months earlier, Benghazi was a hotbed of espionage activity with a wide variety of political activists, terrorists, criminals, and opportunists setting up shop there. Since an effective and honest police presence was highly hit-and-miss in large parts of the city, the CIA had hired the contractors as bodyguards for various undercover missions.


Into this situation, which resembles a modern day version of Casablanca minus Humphrey Bogart, steps Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL. Silva was recruited by his old friend Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), who was already working in Benghazi, along with a number of other SEALS, Army Rangers, and Marines. After a rough introduction to the country as he and Rone drive to the compound from the airport and stumble into an armed showdown with locals, Jack settles in for duty that primarily involves training and waiting, interspersed by occasional hazardous bodyguard duty.


The calm is broken when heavily armed and well organized insurgents overrun the diplomatic compound, defended only by a couple of diplomatic security personnel. The military contractors want to go to the diplomatic compound, but are told to stand down by Bob (David Costabile), the CIA agent in charge. Finally, they leave on their own, defying Bob, and rescue the trapped Americans who were still alive. The battle then shifts to the CIA compound, where the insurgents launch a repeated series of attacks throughout the remainder of the night.


13 Hours is based on a book by Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor who interviewed the surviving contractors (most are referred to by their real names in the book and movie, with the exception of Silva). I have no idea how accurate the book (or the movie) is, but, frankly, this is not a purported documentary in which greater accuracy should be expected. The emphasis of the book and movie is on the contractors and what they did. Neither Bay nor screenwriter Chuck Hogan attempt to place specific blame (Hillary Clinton is never mentioned), although they make it clear that the embittered U.S. forces, which included dozens of CIA staff and civilians, didn’t receive any relief or air support until the next day. Further, 13 Hours doesn’t contain the sort of howling historical inaccuracies that Bay’s Pearl Harbor did.


For a movie that focuses on a half dozen military contractors, 13 Hours does a somewhat flimsy job of establishing their characters. Silva gets the most screen time, and the movie shows him Skyping with his family at home on several occasions. Those scenes and audience familiarity with actor Krasinski make Jackthe only contractor to really register. Ironically, the most memorable character in the movie is Bob, portrayed as the usual stereotypically incompetent bureaucrat who manages to jeopardize the safety of nearly everyone under his command. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will pull rank, act huffy, and make mistakes on every single occasion.


The remainder of the contractors are pretty much interchangeable G.I. Joe action figures. They are played by a group of similar looking actors, and all but one (Pablo Schreiber as “Tonto” Taranto, the group’s wiseass) have beards and are outfitted in camouflage gear. They each get about a minute of screen time during a quiet moment to talk to their own loved ones in a series of unmemorable exchanges. In fact, despite having seen the movie only recently, I can’t accurately recall which of them actually survived the attack.


Bay more than makes up for 13 Hours’ shortcomings as a character study with the best depiction yet of 21st century combat. Both military and cinematic technology have improved in the 15 years since Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Bay shows how modern day combat now takes place. Almost all of the fighting takes place at night, as U.S. forces rely on night vision goggles (much of the combat action is seen from this perspective) and highly accurate sniper fire.


While the insurgents can’t compete with the Americans in terms of technology and firepower, they have their own advantages, most notably the “home field.” Although 13 Hours doesn’t get into the ideological differences between the various Libyan political groups at the time, the movie makes it quite clear that the Libyans on hand during the battle belonged to a number of different factions and that it was impossible to tell who was friend or foe until they actually opened fire (or often merely ran away). In addition, there were a large number of truly innocent bystanders on hand during the battle who got caught up in the combat taking place literally across the street from them. As the Americans make their way through crowds, Bay impresses the audience with the knowledge that the troops could easily be walking into an ambush by “friendly” forces.


This uncertainty over loyalties and an intentionally confusing order of battle (which replicated the actual timeline) allows Bay to build suspense in a historical depiction of an action whose results are well known (this movie is far more suspenseful than Zero Dark Thirty was). 13 Hours is loud and chaotic and subject to Bay’s usual overkill and bombast, but the historical setting constrains him just enough to keep the action credible and exciting. The special effects are realistic, even when depicting high tech gadgetry. Michael Bay certainly hasn’t broken any new ground in terms of human drama in the time of war, but 13 Hours does set the technical standard for the inevitable host of future films about this century’s mid-Eastern conflicts.  

Read other reviews of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi:


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) on IMDb