Movie: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Length: 144 min
Rated: definitely R (language, violence)
Starring: John Krasinski, James Badge, Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, David Giuntloi
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Chuck Hogan
No chance I was going to watch this. Zero interest. Michael Bay's first Transformers movie was fun, if flawed. It felt as if the second movie isolated all the flaws, multiplied them, and made a movie exclusively based on them. I came to see that this was director Michael Bay's style. He lost me as a filmgoer.
So when I learned that he was making a film about Benghazi, I wouldn't even watch the trailers. Bay, openly homosexual member of the Hollywood set, would surely have created a piece to whitewash Obama and help Hillary! Clinton. I was already irritated at Hollywood's refusal to create films uniting and encouraging America in war time as it had done in the 40s, so I was positively averse.
But then just recently I saw some buzz saying that the movie was no whitewash. While its focus isn't political one way or the other, it very plainly contradicts the changing WH narrative, I read. There's no "video," there's no protest. All the tragic events unfold deliberately and grindingly, with the White House and everyone else fully notified from the first second — and no aid is sent. They are all left to die, with zero US or other support. And the film, I read, relayed this all straight-up and well.
So then when I received an invitation from Grace Hill Marketing to attend a showing, I readily accepted.
Bottom line. First, given my readership of fellow-Christians, you do need to know this is a hard-R. Think Saving Private Ryan in terms of cursing, coarse talk, and realistic violence. Not gratuitous, in my opinion, but be advised.
That said, it is a really good movie. It was moving, frustrating, engrossing, infuriating, nerve-wracking, and impossible to look away from. Good to be reminded that Michael Bay can actually make a really good movie when he focuses his talents on some solid material and pursues it with discipline. This film is a solid testimony to the heroes and victims of Benghazi, and an eloquent indictment of the failure of the White House and State Department.
Review. Contrary to his reputation for relying on pyrotechnics and the grand scale, Bay begins with a tight focus on the former-military contractors hired to protect a covert CIA base in Benghazi. Some terse narrative and footage establishes the situation, and then we begin getting to know the men.
Despite the well-known and escalating battles to come, the men really remain the focus of the movie, true to the title. When gunfire and explosions come, though they fill the screen, they're still incidental to these grimly humorous, determined, family-loving, self-sacrificing, and utterly formidable warriors.
We meet all the men through the eyes of a new arrival, and they're all immediately immersed in a tense situation, followed by another and tenser situation. We see that their relationship with the CIA "chief" is unequal, as he shows no respect and little regard for them.
Tension is heightened artfully by the music and occasional time notations, as we see worrisome hints here and there of activity among the heavily-armed and apparently completely idle locals. We're introduced to US Ambassador Chris Stevens and his bright, doomed optimism for making friends with the people of Benghazi. Stevens has been provided with a hollow gesture of two (2!) bodyguards in this highly-dangerous setting.
Gradually and with a sense of mounting dread the stage is set for the initial attack on the compound. When it comes, and as its subsequent waves unfold, Bay's fondness (and adeptness) for explosions and pyrotechnics serve and advance the narrative well. The point of view is all over the place: on the ground, in the air, via satellite. This is masterfully done: the more I reflect on it, the more I admire that aspect.
The contractors are not portrayed as angels or saints, but as grim, seasoned professionals who know exactly what needs to be done and are determined to do it. This makes for squirming, agonizing watching, as the attacks escalate, the embassy begs for help, and the CIA chief dithers and flounders and flatly orders the contractors to "Stand down."
Finally, they can't take it any longer. The embassy pleads for their intervention:"If you do not help us now, we will die," and they feel they must respond regardless of the CIA chief. The team leader gives his men the choice to back out, since they're unauthorized and completely on their own. His team members don't even respond, simply waiting for him to go on with the plan; no one considers not diving in and helpful their fellow-Americans to the full, whatever the risk. This is heroism, and it's nice to see Hollywood represent some for a change.
We watch, knowing how it ends, hoping for a rewrite of history. Despite heroic efforts, they are unable to save Ambassador Stevens — bitterly observing that, had they been unleashed when they asked permission, they would have been able to save both him and his aide.
When the last shot is fired and a way to leave the country finally is provided, we are shaken. The audience at my screening broke out in applause.
Sad, instructive story, excellently told.
What's great about the movie? The way that Bay focuses on the central characters, paces the movie, and somehow manages to keep all the simultaneous movements on the screen. The acting is right in the groove, and of course the special effects are top-notch, down to the sound of rounds zipping past our heads.
Positive portrayals of our warriors are also to be appreciated, not assumed, in today's Hollywood, and this is an instance of it. The men are selfless in their commitment to protect fellow-Americans, committed in their bond to each other, and they go to great pains to avoid shooting non-combatants.
Let me add also about the violence: until the last part of the movie, it is for the most part distant, non-lingering, and non-focal. However, in the final sequences there are some pretty gruelling sights and sounds. But then, this is war, and not a sanitized version of it.
What's less great? Is there Gospel? I fear that the promoters are trying to market this as a faith-based or otherwise Christian-friendly film. It is no such thing, and they would not do the movie a service by selling it as such.
I know nothing of the faith of the actual men involved, but as far as what is onscreen, there is a lot of profanity, a fair dose of crudeness, and a few very general mentions of God. The one explicitly theological statement is directly anti-Christian. It's a quotation from Joseph Campbell, to the effect that "Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us." This is precisely the opposite of how we actually can know the true and living God, and is countered by the world-tilting truth of the Gospel.
There is a bit more shaky-cam than I'd rather. But it's minor enough not to be a problem.
Finally, a split-decision: I found the music to be not very imaginative or creative, sometimes no more than sustained alternating chords. But my son Josiah found it very tense and gripping, and perfectly suited to the movie.
Do you recommend it? For the person prepared for the violence and language, I do, absolutely and enthusiastically. It's a gripping tale of personal heroism and institutional ineptness, and yet another reason to refuse to cede our freedoms to bureaucrats and politicians. It does make one burn to see the inept stewards in Washington called to account for their culpable inaction.
Addendum: here is an interview with the surviving heroes of 13 Hours.