Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Director Michael Bay at what might be his best in a tale of dismal political ineptitude.

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Paramount

Haters of Hillary Clinton may be disappointed to find that there's no mention of the former secretary of state in Michael Bay's new movie about the 2012 Benghazi attack that left U.S. Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens dead and ignited a Congressional uproar that continues to this very moment. But Clinton's State Department is a silent presence throughout the film, failing to provide support to a group of CIA and diplomatic personnel trapped by Islamist attackers. There's no overt finger-pointing, but then none is really necessary.

Like the 2014 book on which it's based, by Boston University journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi sets politics aside to focus on the heroism of six security contractors who voluntarily joined the battle to save their imperiled fellow Americans. It's an all-out action movie that plays to the strengths of director Bay, who's best-known, and widely reviled, for his Transformers franchise. Bay's facility with gunfire and explosions is on generous display, but his sleekly edited mix of hand-held camera work and elegant crane and helicopter shots is an impressive demonstration of his skill as a filmmaker. The movie doesn't rise to the level of Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper—it's short on character exploration, among other things—but it's more than run-of-the-mill action fodder.

The story is set in 2012. In the wake of Libya's collapse following the killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country has become a festering nest of terrorists—"one of the most dangerous places on Earth," the movie tells us. As instability mounts, several Western countries have been pulling their diplomatic personnel out of Libya. But 400 miles away from the capital city of Tripoli, a small U.S. compound remains in operation. Washington has denied this outpost any increase in security measures, so when Ansar al-Sharia terrorists begin moving in, the compound has little to deploy in the way of defense.

Fortunately, it would seem, there's a secret CIA enclave just a mile away, and when news of the compound's deteriorating situation reaches it, six hired security operatives decide to mount a rescue mission—against the orders of the maddeningly bureaucratic station chief (David Costabile). (The security men are very well-played by John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, and Max Martini.)

Bay creates a powerful sense of pinned-down desperation. The defenders are constrained by rules of engagement that prohibit firing on anyone without a weapon actually in his hand; but with their state-of-the-art machine guns and night-vision sniper-scopes, they manage to mow down a sizeable number of marauders. When the compound is set afire, though (and Ambassador Stevens is felled by smoke inhalation), they're forced to round up as many of the diplomatic staffers as they can and pull back to the CIA station. There the terrorist assault continues, and we see palm trees in flame, vehicles blasted to pieces, and occasional camera angles following behind rocket-propelled grenades as they hurtle down to hit their targets. All of this recalls the siege of the Alamo, which is probably intentional.

There's a lot of real excitement here, and the movie puts us squarely on the side of the besieged Americans, who've been semi-abandoned by their overseers in faraway Washington. ("I called for support," one diplomatic staffer says. "It never came."). However, some of the six security heroes—burly, bearded and gleaming with sweat—make little individual impression: they're essentially interchangeable. And since the picture runs nearly two and a half hours, even the best of the well-staged action sequences are undermined, after a while, by a growing monotony. It must also be noted that the version of events presented here was provided to book author Zuckoff by the surviving security men, and has been challenged in predictable quarters.

More of a problem is the movie's lack of narrative rhythm: Bay continually jacks the action up for maximum impact, and then leaves it at that level. There are occasional reflective interludes in which the men relate their feelings for their families back home, but the unblushing sentimentality of these scenes feels manipulative. In addition, the question of why these battle-hardened mercenaries keep signing up to return to this blighted place is never addressed. But then, nor is the question of why U.S. involvement in the Libyan quagmire was felt to be necessary in the first place. Maybe Hillary should have put in an appearance.

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  1. Maybe the reset button should have made an appearance?

    1. At this point, what does it even matter?

  2. “In the wake of Libya’s collapse following the killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country has become a festering nest of terrorists?”one of the most dangerous places on Earth,””

    Smart Power at its finest!

    1. It’s dark. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. The children are asleep. Everyone is tucked in. But then, the phone rings in the White House. Who will answer the phone?

      *Smash cut*

      What difference, at this point, does it make?

      Run that bitch 24-7 from July to November, and Team Stupid wins the White House. Of course, being Team Stupid, they won’t.

      1. Dead on assessment of what Team Stupid won’t do but should. Also shows you how much of a team player Team Feel the Bern is since he will also not do the same.

      2. Someone should make a YouTube video. At least there would be something for anti-Hillary people to pass around on Facebook.

        1. Careful. You know what happens to YouTube video makers when they are targeted by Hillary.

          1. Last week I got a campaign from Rep, Ruben Gallego (D-AZ). He was proud to report that the top two priorities reported in his just concluded email poll where 1) overturn Citizens United and 2) tighten gun controls (IOW, gut both the 1st and 2nd amendments)

            You can bet once they ever manage to overturn CU, amateur YouTube videos either for or against federal candidates will be outlawed. You’ll be free to have your own beliefs, as long as you don’t take them outside the door of your house.

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  4. I’m going to see it. Their story and bravery should be remembered. And yet, the Teflon woman will escape again, unscathed.

    1. A lot of damage has already been done for her and Obama. It simply hasn’t been “public”. Many people despise and distrust these two beyond the “predictable quarters”.
      She needs to be in a penitentiary.

      1. u r sexost

        1. i b racist

      2. I already despised her back when she was trying to cram socialized medicine down our throats.

        -jcr

  5. This review is promising. Loder downplayed the politics, while it seems every other review is placing the spotlight on the politics.

    These guys said they were told to not help. Why would they all make it up? Government ineptitude is pretty believable.

    1. The Washington Post has an interview with the station chief where he basically denies the events in the movie (and presumably book on which it’s based). One possibility is that he said one thing and the contractors interpreted it as another, of course. But I don’t find it particularly unbelievable that he doesn’t want to be thought of as the reason why Benghazi went the way it did and is either lying or trying to spin the story in order to salvage his pride.

      1. I saw the movie on Friday. The station chief was portrayed as a legalistic idiot, so he probably doesn’t like that. It was his character who uttered the words “Stand down” because 1) he needed them to protect the annex 2) the 17 militia was contracted to be the first responders at the consulate, therefor those 6 at the annex were “the last resort” 3) it would stay that was until someone above him gave an order to change it

        I saw the film showing a malfunction of chain of command, where no one wanted to stick their necks out, stepping outside the prescribed procedure (“On who’s authority?”) even when American lives were on the line – except for those six guys who essentially told “Bob” “Fuck you, we’re going”. When they returned to the annex and needed to establish a defense, Bob tried to step outside his role as an intelligence officer to command the military aspects, and was told “You don’t give orders anymore.”

  6. I predict an American Sniper-like effect. Liberals are going to go crazy, but the American public will see it in droves because of story it tells: Americans doing what needs to be done to protect other Americans, not because of politics, but because it’s the right thing to do (believe it or not, Washington, some people don’t live their lives based on what will get them ahead politically). Anyway, I always enjoy media panic over things like this.

    1. Some of those scenes, total stand up guys. We need more of them-

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      1. The same reason the commenting system can’t have an edit function in current year, probably.

  10. sounds better than i expected. thanks for intelligent review

  11. as a general rule, most movies should trim 10-15 minutes off after they feel the film is ready to go.

    1. Exactly… Then they can add them back in as “deleted scenes” for the 10th Anniversary Director’s Cut Blu-Ray edition.

  12. “…the version of events presented here was provided to book author Zuckoff by the surviving security men, and has been challenged in predictable quarters.”

    Yeah, what the hell would they know about what happened? When it comes to finding out the real hard facts of what happened that night in Benghazi I always turn to Elijah Cummings. He’s been at all the hearings so he’d know better than anyone. And what possible reason could he have for trying to protect Hillary? Those CIA guys just sound like disgruntled former employees.

  13. Don’t blame the military for a failure that resides within the National Command Authority.

  14. A NCA that last time I looked is populated by civilians.

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  16. …a tale of dismal military ineptitude

    From where did you get ineptitude on the part of the military being portrayed in this film?

    1. Yeah, that was…imprecise. Changed it…

    2. Chain of command. No one wanted to make a decision, only pass the request up the line, until even POTUS went to bed in the middle of the battle.

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  19. Great review. I saw the movie it was amazing. But unlike this review on cue the usual media critics are out to protect their girl. The critics are all slamming the movie but unlike the usual annoying snobbish writings they are in fact attacking the truthfulness of the story. Their bias cannot be any more apparent. They are pulling out the stops to protect Her Royal Thighness and the administration.

    1. THUNDERRR THIGHSSSSSS……..!!!

    2. Well, I heard the movie says at the beginning “This is a true story.”. If there it’s really untrue, they can sue. However, I doubt Bay (and his lawyers) would claim it’s a true story unless they could back it up.

  20. In addition, the question of why these battle-hardened mercenaries keep signing up to return to this blighted place is never addressed.

    Because they’re generally paid very well, particularly if their deployment pay is given a Department of State uplift (generally 70% of base pay…35% for separation, 35% for hazard pay). Since many of these contractors are former Special Forces, and that’s where their best work experience and skillsets lie, it’s a pretty natural progression from active duty to security contracting in war zones.

    1. Incidentally, David Costabile seems to have carved out a niche for himself in maddeningly bureaucratic roles…he was the maddeningly bureaucratic newspaper editor in season five of “The Wire”. And the OCD chemist Gale Boetticher (a bureaucrat in his own way) in “Breaking Bad”.

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  25. The debate over the stand down order and the criticism from “predictable quarters” (that’s awful polite Loder, why don’t you flesh that out a little bit???) are really only red herrings.

    The entire premise of the story is an indictment of fecklessness and incompetence throughout the entire spectrum of the US foreign policy establishment.

    I could go into a dissertation of precisely why (and did until I just deleted it) but the question really boils down to – WHY THE HELL WERE WE RELYING ON NON-UNIFORMED PERSONNEL AT ALL?

    Maybe I’m just old enough to remember the tremendous distaste expressed by the media and “predictable quarters” over the use of “contractors” in Iraq during the Bush administration.

    It was such a problem the, but now, now none of that matters a whit. Since Obama and Hillary did it, it has become the bog standard method of putting American assets in harms way without actually “committing” America to much of anything. they may have criticized it then, but THEY are the ones who have cemented it as the accepted standard now. With nary a peep from those previously “predictable quarters” (or the likes of Loder.)

    It’s foreign policy on the cheap, With entirely predictable results because you always get exactly what you pay for.

    1. HTML fail, sorry.

      1. such a problem then

    2. Sometimes they send in actual contractors because that allows a layer of deniability for the administration if/when things don’t go “as planned” (since their planning is often unrealistic or just bad). Sometimes they are actually sending in uniformed servicemen who have agreed to sign paperwork in advance to be used to show that they were no longer in uniform (along the lines of many episodes of the TV series “The Unit”) – for the above mentioned reasons. It is all but impossible to know the difference.

      1. All true, but nothing more than symptoms of the underlying problem.

      2. Most guys in the military do a few years and get out, or become officers. These guys are the professional infantry men, the best at what they do. I know two operators. One recently retired at 50, the other is 65 and trying to stay out of action as a trainer, but recently got himself shot in the ass being dropped into what was supposed to be a ‘safe’ landing zone.

        1. If they are the best, and I do not doubt that, and they are being hir d to defend US national interests then we really, really should slap uniforms on them.

          It is only right and just for all parties.

          That we so obviously do not is an indictment of the entire endeavor and everyone in charge of it.

          1. It doesn’t bother me that they aren’t wearing uniforms, but when they are in the employ of the US govt that govt sure as hell better have their back.

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  35. I bet the survivors of the USS Liberty can relate to this story.

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