Michael Bay’s treatment of the attacks on American diplomatic outposts in Benghazi in 2012 is alternately gripping and infuriating, a tense (and intense) account of six contractors’ desperate effort to survive in the face of overwhelming odds in the field and underwhelming support at home.
We open a few months before the attacks on September 11, 2012, as Jack Silva (John Krasinski) arrives in Libya. Previously a Navy SEAL, Silva has been hired by the CIA to help protect an outpost in Benghazi. As title cards inform us, following an American bombing campaign and Gaddafi’s ouster, Libya is wracked by civil war, and Benghazi is dominated by local militias vying for power. It is, we are told, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Silva is met at the airport by Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), who gives him the lay of the land and introduces him to his fellow contractors and also to the CIA station chief, Bob (David Costabile). A consummate bureaucrat, Bob simply wants the SEALS and Rangers and other former military men under his command to avoid trouble. He’s this close to retirement and doesn’t want a black mark on his record.
After getting a sense of the difficulties Silva and his crew have keeping their CIA wards safe in such hostile territory, we jump ahead to the night in question. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) has come to town in order to help win hearts and minds, and the nincompoops in State have set him up in a villa that is totally indefensible from any sort of coordinated attack.
Bureaucratic cowardice and incompetence is a running theme of 13 Hours, an action film that is somewhat unique in that much of its dramatic tension is derived from what doesn’t happen. After Stevens’ temporary home comes under attack, we spend several harrowing minutes with Silva and Rone as they desperately try to get Bob to sign off on a rescue mission: The tensest, most horrifying part of the film is Rone not being allowed to fight as Stevens’ compound burns, their being repeatedly told to stand down.
This sort of inaction repeats itself throughout the film: Once they get to the compound, the story revolves around the titular secret soldiers not finding Stevens and not engaging the enemy; later on, as they desperately defend the CIA annex, the tension mounts as the American government does not provide any air support.
Viewers are likely to grow just as frustrated as Silva and company with the lack of response from American higher ups. They feel abandoned and betrayed—and we experience that lack of loyalty right alongside them. While observers have been right to note that this is not a partisan film (we never see Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama) that does not necessarily mean it is entirely apolitical or non-ideological. As I noted at the Washington Post, this is a film that will likely trigger the "loyalty/betrayal" dimension of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory—a foundation tied to patriotism and camaraderie that is valued far more by conservatives and Republicans than liberals and Democrats.
So while liberals may snigger and sneer at Bay’s shot of terrorists shooting a fluttering American flag to ribbons as U.S. forces sit idly by and an American ambassador suffocates on diesel smoke, conservatives are far more likely to be enraged.
Bay, of course, was an interesting (some might say controversial) choice for director. He brings a muted version of his typical visual bombast to the table here: We see many of the tricks he favors in other films (shots of American flags flying in the breeze; children running in slow motion through waist-high grass; spinning-360-degree shots that start low and angle upward) employed with more restraint than usual. Shots linger, camera swoops are slower and less pronounced.
And, as one thinks Bay may have realized, it’s the least bombastic shots that tend to be the most powerful in this film. As CIA analysts are screaming into a phone, begging for air cover, Bay cuts to a shot of F-16s on the ground a few hundred miles away, idling, cockpits empty. Could a simple flyover have saved lives that night?
Bay’s (relatively) restrained direction, combined with the mounting frustration felt by Silva and his friends, renders The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi as a slightly more frenetic Black Hawk Down. A moving tale of heroism and sacrifice wrapped in an explosive package that will quicken your pulse, 13 Hours is sure to appeal to the audiences that turned out for American Sniper and Lone Survivor.