Benghazi is a hashtag battle-cry, a call to arms that many Americans don’t understand. Unlike the simplicity of “Remember the Alamo!” a bleat of “Benghazi!” still has people wondering, “Wait, what happened? And why are we mad?”
Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi has an explanation, though it should be taken with a grain of salt — or rather, a kilogram of dynamite. Bay takes Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction book of the same name and amps up the action with explosions, star filters, and neon-blue lights that zip across our heroes’ heads as they tromp down the alleyways of Libya’s second biggest city on a night that will cost four Americans their lives. When a man plops his boots on a desk, it sounds like a gun going off. When a gun actually fires, it sounds like a thunderbolt from Zeus. It’s the truth cranked up to eleven, boosted with brand-new firefights (in real life, the Guardian found few bullet holes at the site of either skirmish) and a wholly fictitious bus blast that had my audience applauding with glee. “That was for us!” a character grins. Yes, literally — it was invented for a crowd that prefers fist-pumping to facts.
In an early scene, Bay primes our engines with an octane-fueled car chase where two former Navy SEALs, Rone (James Badge Dale) and Jack (John Krasinski), escape a suspicious van by smashing into fruit stands at full speed. By contrast, Zuckoff, a sentimental but terse Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work at the Boston Globe in the late Nineties, merely notes, “Eventually Rone lost the tail and returned them safely to the annex.” You can hear Bay groaning, “Boring. Those cars don’t even talk!” When Bay finally does get to shoot a based-in-truth chase sequence starring the embassy’s bulletproof SUV, he’s so excited that the car screams.
13 Hours is a story about timing. First, that the U.S. government should have been on higher alert on 9-11-2012, the eleven-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. And second, that for three Januaries in a row, a quasi-historical Navy SEAL action flick has made a box office mint. Like Lone Survivor and American Sniper, 13 Hours is a love letter to our men in uniform. I can’t say men and women, because these films are always about the manliest of men, guys who lift weights, drink Budweiser, and crack jokes like, “You lose your tampon?” And, technically, the men in 13 Hours aren’t in uniform, either. These were freelance contractors, former SEALs, Marines, and Army Rangers who signed on to guard the CIA’s secret Benghazi compound for $150,000 a year. That didn’t buy them much on-the-job dignity. As local CIA boss “Bob” (David Costabile) — a cipher who’s never been named — sneers, “You’re hired help — act the part.”
Bay argues that the men at the center of his film were fighting two enemies: the shape-shifting Libyan militias and the CIA snobs who trusted Harvard- and Yale-educated desk jockeys over these weight-lifting, beer-drinking jokers who’d actually been in the shit. Chuck Hogan’s script blows raspberries at everyone from the blonde agent (Alexia Barlier) who treats Jack, posing as her husband, with such condescension she nearly blows their cover to the cowardly Libyan guards who only care about their $28-a-day paychecks — less than a local secretary’s salary. “Middle Eastern Keystone Kops,” groans the guard (David Furr) in charge of protecting Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher). Good old Bob, however, a doughy middle-manger in need of a dastardly mustache, prefers the rent-a-Libyans to our band of saviors. “You’re not the first responders,” he grunts. “You’re the last resorts.”
13 Hours captures the contradictions of the Benghazi assault. Everyone agrees it was a tragedy in which four men died: two due to smoke inhalation, two under mortar fire. Yet ever since, some pundits and politicians have mourned with a dash of self-satisfaction — it confirmed both their fears about terrorism and their pride in the brave Americans who put their asses on the line. By the time Bob vows, “There is no threat here,” the movie can’t wait to prove him wrong. Bring it on, bro.
Of course, 13 Hours doesn’t extend any of that pride to the Libyans, over 30,000 of whom died in the first year of the 2011 revolution, and who continue to die by the thousands. Every Libyan in the film is suspicious or pathetic, even the ones who help the Americans fight. When two teens rush to rescue Ambassador Stevens, Rone warns, “Don’t shoot us in the back.” And when a translator (A Separation‘s Peyman Moaadi) takes up a pistol to defend his country, Jack jokes, “That dude’s not coming back.” That dude does come back, bloodied and sweaty, not that he gets much credit. Jack shoos him off with the admonition, “Your country’s gotta figure this shit out, Amahl.” Well, they’re trying. Just last week, 65 Libyan police trainees died when a truck bomb crashed into their academy, not that we’ll ever see a movie about that. And though the book and the film imply a sizable Libyan body count on 9-11-12 — Bay even shows us some corpses — no U.S. newspaper has ever confirmed any non-American dead. Either there weren’t any, or no one cares.
Libya’s Culture and Information Minister, Omar Gawaari, has dismissed 13 Hours for turning “America’s failure to protect its own citizens in a fragile state into a typical action movie all about American heroism.” He has a point. To Bay’s credit, the director doesn’t. Though Lone Survivor and American Sniper teetered into propaganda, 13 Hours is adamantly apolitical — unless you think all-American men of action knowing more than the bureaucrats is something new in action movies. It just wants to blow things up. Bay strips out any mention of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama and then keeps stripping until even the characters themselves can’t explain why they fight. Says Jack, imagining his own funeral, “He died in a place he didn’t need to be, in a battle he doesn’t understand, in a country that doesn’t mean nothing to him.”
The actual men weren’t vague. Zuckoff quotes Tanto (Pablo Schreiber), a self-described “avenging angel” with a tattoo of Saint Raphael battling the Devil with a crucifix, as saying, “I don’t wish the Crusades would come back. But sometimes I feel that they should come back.” And on the opposite side of the pew, former SEAL Glen Doherty (Toby Stephens) fought against the encroachment of religious fundamentalism in the military. At his funeral, his buddies toasted him with a flask inscribed “What Jesus Wouldn’t Do.”
Here, however, Tanto and Doherty are pared down and purified until these ideologically opposed warriors, united by valor, are interchangeable guys with goatees. They’re action heroes in an action movie that too many people will accept as truth. As ever, the real story is both more complicated and more boring — the stuff of books, not movies. In Zuckoff’s report, there’s a moment when former Marine Tig (played here by Dominic Fumusa) brandishes a flamethrower on an abandoned Benghazi street while the other men take pictures. They wanted to pretend he was a blockbuster star. And now he is.