It’s election year in the US, folks! You know what that means - lots of unnecessary TV coverage of would-be Presidents, lots of rhetoric from would-be Presidents about promises that’ll never be kept if they did land a gig in the White House, and lots of finger pointing and name-calling about how MY party’s philosophy is better than YOUR party’s philosophy. You can’t beat a good bit of democracy, especially in a country that boasts a whole two parties legitimately standing a chance of governing it. Republicans are getting all excited about their Trumpwagon revving up - mmm, smell that racist populism, it’s just like freedom - while Democrats are fretting over which Obama successor, Sanders or Clinton, is the less risky of the two. And even the leftest of liberals can’t deny that both of them are risky.
There’s still a fair few months to go until Election Day and thus still an abundance of political topics to unravel and present to the forum of intense debate - or to use its more accurate title, petty verbal shit-flinging - and each party will have plenty of grounds for faith in their impending victory. But if there’s one issue that’s going to sit there like a big awkward elephant-donkey hybrid in the room until it’s prodded, it’s that great foreign policy screw-up of 2012: Benghazi.
It’s a subject of no laughing matter either - four American lives lost on foreign soil, a massive power-shift toward Islamic extremist factions within Libya, an embarrassing blow to the belief that American values are steadfast, wherever they decide to place themselves in the world. However you look at it, it continues to be an event of national shame and fierce argument. Did the government really do everything they could to protect their diplomatic program? Did the CIA intentionally try to scupper a rescue operation for Ambassador Stevens? The answers are perhaps as contentious as the questions, and all investigations so far have stagnated in the muddy waters of political attrition. So in true American fashion, our only option is to have Hollywood and Michael Bay step forward to provide the real truth for us. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi comes to movie theater screens at a time when the American political landscape is facing its tightest battle for supremacy in years - and no matter how much it tries to mask itself as merely a solid, honest action movie based on real-life events, its re-telling of the Benghazi incident is going to have a genuine influence on voter opinion come November, intentionally or otherwise.
13 Hours bases much of its factual foundation on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book of the same title and subject matter, and just like the literary work, covers the incident in its calamitous entirety. John Krasinski of US The Office fame leads this military foray into diplomatic failure as Jack Da Silva, one of six Global Response Staff military contractors (also played by various TV and journeyman movie vets, including Orange is the New Black’s Pablo Schreiber and Krasinski’s Office co-star David Denman) who are deployed to Benghazi to protect American interests. These interests take the form of not only the U.S embassy compound newly installed to the war-rocked Libyan city, but also a covert CIA annex tasked with overseeing the diplomatic mission as well as assisting pro-U.S rebels within the country in their fight against the sudden, massive threat of the Islamist extremists that have emerged. The First Libyan Civil War may be officially over and the tyranny of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime ceased, but the threat of new bloodshed among Libya’s now-warring militias runs rampant, and the movie sits Benghazi as a largely lawless frontier splintered by the factions desperate to gain control of it.
The film wastes no time briefing us on Benghazi’s tumultuous position, dedicating its first five minutes firstly to a terse Call of Duty-styled Powerpoint introduction detailing the subsequent major events (interspersed with conflict footage and a reconstruction of Gaddafi’s final moments at the hands of a Libyan mob), and then secondly to the scenes of Silva getting straight off a plane, hooking up with his fellow G.R.S compatriot and old buddy Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) and the pair of them promptly getting caught up in a near-lethal stand-off at a makeshift checkpoint enforced by Islamist militia - and later prime antagonists - Ansar al-Sharia. Both Silva and Woods scrape through this initial encounter with their future enemies, but the film’s tense, fluid opening proffers a warning statement to both character and viewer alike: Benghazi belongs to the militias, and America’s tentative foothold on Libyan soil is vastly besieged from every angle.
Anxious foreboding thus pervades in the film’s surprisingly calculated opening act, placing a focus on the individuals of the G.R.S team as they get acquainted with one another, gather intel on Benghazi and review strategy for protecting the diplomatic compound they’ve been brought in to guard. While they’re getting a feel for the place, militia operatives are getting a feel for them. Doubts reign about the compound’s size, being too large for such a small team to cover. A covert meeting with Benghazi dignitaries and an Exxon Oil rep (another civilian on the G.R.S’ safeguard charter, played by Alexia Barlier) is abandoned as roving militia spies sweep in upon it. A weapons trade-off with loosely-allied mercenaries threatens to turn into an all-out sniper duel. Each of these momentary flashpoints contribute sufficiently to a slow building of dread in the narrative atmosphere of the movie as well as the mindset of the protagonists. They know their enemies are turning the screw on them, but without solid support from the U.S government and a local C.I.A command intent on keeping U.S operations as low-key as possible, they are completely impotent at stopping them from doing so.
While Bay’s critics will deny such an achievement, the former Transformers director deserves credit for delivering a decently-poised opening platform of suspense with which to deliver the film’s pulverising closing battle upon. Famed and notorious for his bombastic yet brainless style of storytelling, here he does a good job of not only keeping a lid on the film’s pacing but also keeping the film from devolving into a mere exercise of soldier-worshipping histrionics. Granted, not all of it works - a shaky sub-plot involving oil company reps and British undercover agents serves as an awkward, unnecessary distraction from the main story at hand. There are also still times when the pro-military stance the movie takes does indeed force it to mis-step into the more rotten side of Americana - that being the mythical belief that only Americans know what they’re doing in a war zone, and any foreign person, friend or foe, is in need of a bit of Yankee enlightenment through the means of Freedom and Getting Things Done. Enemy Libyans are painted as maniacally malevolent without further explanation, while ally Libyans are mostly incompetent buffoons largely out of their element. In a nice little touch of Redcoat sentiment, the British agent (Freddie Stroma) is portrayed as an arrogant, argumentative whiner constantly in conflict with the Americans around him. The head of the local CIA operation (David Constabile) meanwhile, acting as the GRS unit’s supervisor, is about as stereotypical an obstructive bureaucrat as you’re likely to see in any movie, constantly shutting down his subordinates and, in perhaps the film’s most hotly-discussed issue, denying his men the right to act when the U.S consulate finally comes under attack. The film may win commendation for its effective plot development, but it wins nothing for giving in to the same tired pro-American character tropes and dialogue that affect a lot of the country’s modern military movies.
Luckily, the film’s main band of characters are the reason why it’s easy to stay invested for the film’s slightly protracted two-and-a-half hours. Far from your being typical ‘oorah’ heroes, the men of the G.R.S are a likeable bunch despite having to suffer a few of the typical malapropisms America’s soldier myth continues to throw up (they’re just men serving their duty, waiting to go home and see their kids etc. etc.). John Krasinski may take center stage for playing the character who serves as the story’s central foil, and he fulfils his role as Silva with a persuasive cogency. But he is only one of a leading cast that put in more-than-competent performances that serve to make the group strong, believable and most importantly heroic as a collective. They are a critical component of why the film’s action-heavy second half stays compelling, even if the film’s staunch insistence on sticking to the full gamut of real-life events results in a mildly repetitive conclusion of the G.R.S dealing with wave after wave of militia attackers.
The climactic sequence of their last stand however is both ferocious and tragic, an earth-rendering crescendo of mortar fire, patriotic bravery and despair that is unflinching in its carnage. It’s a fitting zenith to a closing act in which Bay’s more prominent traits of largely satisfying explosive set pieces come to bear, but will also likely be heavily criticized as a painfully cloying, unnecessarily bloody attempt at stirring up scorn for the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis. Nonetheless, it is an ending that is most certain to resonate in the hearts and minds of pro-military campaigners, and is certain to re-ignite Republican fervour in the belief that U.S government dismally failed the men who served to fight Islamic insurgency in its name.
Whatever your stance on Benghazi is, you can feel safe in the knowledge that 13 Hours sheds absolutely no new light on the questions surrounding the incident that wasn’t there before. In fact since its release, even the film’s emphasis on accuracy has been thrown into doubt, with individuals on both sides of the government culpability debate raging over whether or not Benghazi’s local CIA commander ordered the G.R.S to stand down once news of an attack was raised, and whether U.S command could or couldn’t have provided worthwhile air support. Basically, the same arguments that were blazing across the Internet long before talks of a film depicting its real events came to fruition. One thing you can be sure of though is that the film will serve as a wonderful tool of emotional propaganda for Republican candidates to remind American citizens of the sacrifices our armed forces make, and how your Democrat overlords show nothing but contempt for them. It’s just a shame that once all the post-election dust has settled, there’ll actually be a pretty decent war movie left abandoned amongst the rubble too.