Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi film is on
Michael Bay’s bloody bonanza about the 2012 US compound attack is atrocious, shrewdly timed for the presidential race and so scornful of foreign intervention it could be pacifist
Midway through Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, interrupting its bizarre mix of war pornography and dour isolationist posturing, there’s a shoehorned moment of mawkishness. Jack (John Krasinski) is one of the ex-armed forces contractors taking a babysitting job as security to CIA specialists halfway around the world. He’s Skyping with his wife and daughters, and if that doesn’t telegraph what motivates him to stay alive, he learns he’s going to be a father again. This most human moment in the 144-minute film raises the stakes, and does double duty as product placement, set as it is at a McDonald’s drive-thru, Happy Meals references flavouring the wholesome family sentiment. 13 Hours is as American as microwaved apple pie.
Detailing the 2012 attack on a US diplomatic (and, later, espionage) compound in Benghazi, Libya, in all its thudding, bloody brutality, 13 Hours is an extraordinary artifact, a film that makes you long for the subtlety of something like Black Hawk Down. It stars a half dozen interchangeable bearded, buff men with names like Boon, Tig, Rone, Bub and Oz. One looks a bit more like Metallica’s James Hetfieldthan the others and another is black, but the rest are a clone army. They are guns for hire for a secret CIA base run by pansy twerps from Harvard and Yale who barely know how to wipe their own asses without checking a rulebook. The nasally egghead chief (David Costabile) explains to newcomer Jack that flexing too much muscle where the natives can see isn’t a good idea. But just outside the window, one of the boys is yawping and dragging enormous blocks of concrete around in his short shorts like this is some kind of Steve Reeves picture. Behind him, a bleating pen of sheep, defenceless to slaughter.
An off-the-books facility in an unstable country means the enemy is everywhere. Benghazi is a shithole where they sell RPGs in the street. “They’re all bad guys until they’re not”, and “you can’t tell the good guys from the bad”, we’re warned. Muezzins lead the call to prayer and shifty-looking brown people scowl from behind their glasses of tea. But listen, we already know they hate us. The real enemy in 13 Hours is more insidious – those half-assed pencil pushers. If they’d just get out of the way and let a soldier do his job, we’d finally accomplish something and make America great again.
Don’t tell me this movie isn’t political. Michael Bay’s Benghazi bonanza is timed for release just before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. It’ll hit DVD in time for the general election. There are approximately 400,000 instances in this not-very-subtle screenplay where Fox News viewers are cued to hiss at a phantom Hillary Rodham Clinton, the right wing’s scapegoat for the missteps that kept the Benghazi outpost fighting so long without backup. As these brave men take fire, their inquiries about air support become a clear indictment against a perceived US policy of pussification. While the boondoggle portrayed in 13 Hours may be based on fact, this is movie is fuelled by paranoia and hate. Paranoia about a culture too foreign to grasp except as a bunch of mindless monsters, and hate against a government that won’t let us destroy them.
Abhorrent politics aside, it’s also a terrible movie. The dialogue is atrocious, the performances rote. One could make the case that its incoherence is a grand meta-narrative statement about the fluidity of combat, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s impossible to tell who anybody is. Instead, we’re told what to feel by the music and booms. Our boys fall asleep when “true believer” Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya at the time of the attack, gives his speech about common ground between two nations, but they will risk it all to save his hide from the swarm of “bad guys” surrounding his quarters, as in Cy Endfield’s Zulu.
They don’t save him, however, and that’s only because the chief won’t grant them authority to act in time. They eventually take their own initiative, leading to an awful lot of shooting and chasing. From an action-adventure point of view, all but a sequence inside an armoured car are pretty standard. Any emotion turns to guffaws when a family snapshot happens to float into frame just as a particularly destructive mortar hits.
“Your country’s gotta figure this shit out,” one of the bearded good guys says to his translator as he rides away, and Bay plays it without a shred of irony. The most interesting aspect of 13 Hours is its low esteem for interventionism. Honour in service comes from interacting with your fellow soldiers, but the service itself is pointless and the leaders are idiots. This bloody, explosive love letter to soldiers of fortune ends up, in a twisted way, as a call for pacifism. Maybe Michael Bay is a genius after all.
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