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Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Directed by: Michael Bay

Premise: Based on the nonfiction book by Mitchell Zuckoff. An American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya is attacked by local militants. A team of security officers working out of a nearby CIA annex combat the attackers. 

What Works: The best way to understand 13 Hours is not as a war film or a docudrama or as political agitprop but as a grindhouse-style action picture from thirty years ago. 13 Hours is the contemporary equivalent of the movies Chuck Norris was making for Cannon Films in the 1980s such The Delta Force and Missing in Action. Like those titles, 13 Hours is about elite American military operatives in a foreign land who carry out a rescue mission in spite of governmental bureaucracy trying to hold them back. As in those Chuck Norris shoot-’em-up movies from thirty years ago, the action of 13 Hours satisfies the masculine bloodlust of its target audience. In that respect, the second half of the picture is far superior to the first and from the time that the security contractors arrive at the besieged diplomatic compound through the final shootout at the CIA annex the movie does deliver the action movie goods. Understood as an exploitation film, which is exactly what this is, 13 Hours delivers the violent thrills that the Michael Bay audience will come to the movie expecting to see.

What Doesn’t: Were 13 Hours an entirely fabricated scenario the movie would be passable as an action picture in much the same way as 2015’s No Escape. However, the fact that this film is based on actual events and that the movie purports to be the true story of what happened in Benghazi in 2012 changes the context of what’s on screen. The point of adapting a true story into a dramatic motion picture is to clarify the event for the audience and give it a dramatic meaning. If Michael Bay and company only wanted to make a militaristic action picture they could have easily done that. But in telling the story of the 2012 Benghazi siege and claiming that their movie is a true story, 13 Hours has to be held to a different standard than the exploitation movies that it’s channeling. As a docudrama, 13 Hours does not bring the audience any closer to understanding the Benghazi incident. Part of its failure is cinematic. The first half of the picture introduces the characters and intends to set up the geography of the US State Department compound and the CIA complex. The layout of the buildings and surrounding environs isn’t done very well and much of the action from the opening of the film through the sacking of the diplomatic compound is confusing. The other part of 13 Hours’ failure is the filmmakers’ utter indifference to understanding why the Benghazi attack happened. The film posits that the civil war that deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi created chaos but that doesn’t explain the animus toward the Americans or why the attack happened at that particular time. An accurate depiction of what happened in Benghazi requires nuance and complexity. But 13 Hours was directed by Michael Bay and nuance and complexity aren’t in his vocabulary. So instead, the movie’s explanation for the violence is quite simple: Arabs are scary and violent people. The entire picture is full of angry Arab visuals and one scene even juxtaposes morning prayers with a cache of weapons. The filmmakers attempt to counteract their racist sentiment by tacking conciliatory footage onto the ending but it comes across disingenuous at best. 13 Hours is also insulting to those in the foreign diplomatic services. Everyone who’s not a soldier is inept and the security contractors are openly hostile toward diplomacy and nation building. If 13 Hours is intended to be a patriotic piece, the macho jingoism of the movie utterly backfires.

Bottom Line: Whatever the filmmakers’ motives, 13 Hours comes across as a tacky exploitation picture that turns a real life tragedy into a first-person-shooter video game. It’s a dumb movie that confirms the parody of Michael Bay in Team America: World Police.

Episode: #580 (January 31, 2016)