13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (Movie Review)

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***1/2 out of ****
Rated R


for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and strong language
Released: January 15, 2016
Runtime: 144 minutes
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Costabile, Matt Letscher, David Denman, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Demetrius Grosse, David Giuntoli

How in the name of Uncle Sam does an American Ambassador get sent without a security detail into the radical Islamic hotbed of a city deemed threat level “critical”, in a country going through insurrection and anarchy, on the eve of a September 11th anniversary? The new film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi doesn’t attempt to answer that baffling political question; instead, it shows us the tragic cluster of chaos and carnage that comes from such infuriating incompetence – and the true heroism that emerges, even in the face of negligent betrayal.

A kindred film to Black Hawk Down in so many ways, 13 Hours – a stellar achievement from oft-mocked Transformers filmmaker Michael Bay – dramatizes with procedural intensity (and high gloss blockbuster style) a real-life event of how a peace-keeping mission in a war-torn African country quickly devolves into an unexpected uprising by local armed militants, and the lack of proper military response due to bureaucratic naiveté and cowardice. Specifically, it depicts what really happened on September 11 and 12, 2012, when Islamic militants strategically attacked a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the small private security team (made up of former American military) that struggled to defend it.

Suffice it to say, it didn’t have a damn thing to do with an anti-Islam internet video.

Painting a completely different picture than the one spun by Presidential administration officials (and recycled by the media) in the early days following the events, and later by others in Congressional hearings, 13 Hours brings to riveting life the profound valor of the six-member Annex Security Team that fought to rescue U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and defend his Consulate, even as it became clear that the U.S. Government would not send reinforcements from any number of military units on standby in the region. This lack of backup was in stark contrast to the Islamic militants who were not only great in number, but actually fortified with reinforcements.

This lopsided nightlong firefight makes up the bulk of 13 Hours, but not until after a lengthy 45-minute prologue that effectively sets the stage (and tone) for what ultimately goes down. For the uneducated, the film’s opening sequence – and narrative on-screen texts – lays the groundwork to bring viewers up to speed on what led to the volatile conditions in Benghazi on September 10, 2012. There, a non-militarized CIA team works covertly to achieve intel; publicly, they don’t exist.

That’s why, instead of a formal military squadron, the private Annex Security Team is hired to guard them, against the local CIA team leader’s wishes. The team’s value is born out as occasional skirmishes and legitimate threats pop up but, even so, large-scale combat is never considered a viable danger, despite the city’s “critical” threat level. The ongoing tension between the local CIA chief, his officers, and the Annex Team is key to how events later unfold.

Just as their working dynamic settles in to its own routine, a U.S. Ambassador shows up in Benghazi without prep or planning. It’s Chris Stevens, an admired “true believer” diplomat veteran of multiple administrations who arrives to engage local leaders in an attempt to bring peace and stability. Other than a couple of armed guards, Stevens is unprotected. The Annex Team was unable to provide support because, again, officially they weren’t even supposed to be there.

But then, as dusk began to set on September 11, armed Islamic militants sneak out from the shadows and surrounding terrain in a coordinated attack. They were not random, offended protestors. They were a militia, engaging in a tactical assault on a vulnerable U.S. compound. As one Libyan eyewitness testified, “There was no demonstration. They came with machine guns, with rockets.”

Once it becomes clear that military support is not on the way, the leader of the Annex – former Navy SEAL Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale; The Walk, World War Z) – defied the CIA chief’s order to stand down and led his team of six ex-military to the consulate as it was engulfed in flames and under siege. Then, for the next ninety minutes, we are submerged into that quagmire as a half-dozen brave fighters – with limited reserves, no backup, and deep in an atmosphere where hostiles and friendlies look exactly the same – fight wave after wave of militants for thirteen hours. A superb cast, led by Badge Dale, John Krasinski (TV’s The Office), and Pablo Schreiber (a steady-working TV character actor) as Kris ‘Tanto’ Paronto, instill the team with requisite conviction, the kind it takes to defy orders and do what’s right, while also imbuing these men with the emotional tension of their family connections, as well as humor.

Director Michael Bay sticks squarely to events on the ground, free of commentary or political fingerpointing. In particular, Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Obama are never mentioned by name; neither are they vaguely inferred or visually referenced with accusatory implications. This is not a cinematic blame game – and that’s Bay’s most deft, mature stroke. As easy (and perhaps even tempting) as it may have been to make, there are no polemical monologues or soapbox grandstanding. No commentary is required. The film itself is all the commentary we need, because the facts themselves stand in such stark contrast to the mixed narratives we’ve received from administration and media sources for over three years.

Bay dramatizes it all in the color-saturated kinetic viscera we’ve come to expect from the notorious action auteur, but his patented aesthetic – which has often been dismissed by critics (myself included) as excessively hyper megabudget video game moviemaking – is employed with more serious intent than it’s ever been before. The action is stylized, even graphic, but never gratuitous. A thick atmosphere of confusion and dread permeates the guerrilla warfare; it’s never reduced to commercial-driven first person shooter voyeurism. Or while American flags wave gloriously in slow-mo (at times being riddled with enemy bullets), the film never brandishes a chest-thumping jingoist arrogance. Even at its most testosterone-fueled, 13 Hours remains a sober experience.

For the fourth year in a row, Hollywood gives us a portrayal of modern combat to start the new year. January war movies over the past three years – Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, and American Sniper – have all been embraced by audiences, and mostly by critics. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi looks to continue that tradition. It’s a worthy successor. Audiences who hope it reaches the high bar of those recent true story War On Terror military dramas will not be disappointed, and even be grateful for its harrowing honesty – as grateful as those who survived the Benghazi assault have been after screening it, along with the loved ones of those who didn’t.

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