Much will be made about the political ramifications of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, but the reality is Hilary Clinton is never mentioned once. The movie does, however, cast an unflattering light upon the nameless U.S. officials monitoring the situation from afar via drone while boots on the ground take fire from teeming insurgents and face insurmountable odds. Politics in this landscape are unavoidable, yet at the core, 13 Hours is a tale of grit, courage under fire and the Semper Fi brotherhood forged between a half-dozen men who draw paychecks from the CIA to keep their unappreciative Ivy-League-educated wonks safe in the middle of a terrorist hotbed within revolution-flipped Libya on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.
Memories of the 2012 siege of the U.S. Embassy and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens remain fresh, but the film, adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff’s similarly titled book by Chuck Hogan (The Town), casts a bigger net than merely regurgitating what was shown in news clips and spun politically at the time.
To get there, we sit on the shoulder of Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL saying goodbye to his family and heading overseas for the inevitable shitshow. The opening flash points blasted onto the screen “digital dossier style” informs us that, of the United States’ 292 diplomatic outposts in the world, 12 of them are in perilous areas, and two of those are in Libya. Right after Silva is picked up by his Global Response Staff (GRS) lead, Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), there’s an immediate showdown with some heavily armed unfriendlies in a crowded alleyway. Bravado and bluster gets them through, but these buff, bearded lads can back it up.
And of course, this is a Michael Bay film. It comes with all the macho, drum-thumping trimmings you’d expect. With 13 Hours, Bay, the heavy hand behind the Transformer movies and Armageddon, has expressed the intention of doing something different and real. To a degree, he’s succeeded. 13 Hours channels Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down much more than it does Bay’s own Pearl Harbor. And though it’s not up to par with either of those first two movies, it is more thought-provoking than the straight-up chest-pounding of Lone Survivor.
13 Hours also tells a story those just familiar with the news reports of the attack might not know—of how the assault on the diplomatic outpost lasted through the night and spilled over onto the CIA annex down the street where 26 operatives sat in a bunker with just the six-man GRS force to defend them.
Via a deftly nerve-racking barrage of action scenes, often shot from drone and security cam POV, Bay’s film does a decent job of presenting a complex series of events, and conveying the daunting disorientation of being a marked foreigner in a hostile land where the language barrier alone is enough to get you killed.
For fans of The Office, it might be a bit jarring to see Krasinski go buff and mean, but it works. Pablo Schreiber of Orange is the New Black successfully transitions from the small screen, too, and Dale, full of spit and swagger, should find more lead roles following 13 Hours.
Ultimately, Bay and screenwriter Hogan manage to sidestep the politics of naming names, focusing instead on honoring the heroics of six brave men. In the process, they depict a changing global landscape and a government willing to put its own in harm’s way.
Director: Michael Bay
Writer: Chuck Hogan, based on the book 13 Hours by Mitchell Zuckoff and members of the Annex Security Team.
Starring: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, Toby Stephens, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, David Denman, David Costabile, David Giuntoli, Demetrius Gross, Alexia Barlier, Peyman Moaadi
Release Date: January 15, 2015
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, WBUR’s ARTery, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.