“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” takes as its subject the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and a nearby CIA station that left American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead.
Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book – which was written in collaboration with five surviving members of the CIA’s security team, and which includes some disputed versions of events – it thankfully avoids politicizing the episode, for which Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, then serving as secretary of state, has been pilloried by conservatives for allegedly ignoring requests to fortify the consulate’s defenses prior to the attack. As an action film, it is intense and gripping. As a drama, it is bombastic and unsubtle.
Despite a vague reference to budget cuts, Clinton is never mentioned in the movie. If there’s a villain – other than the Libyan attackers, who were members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia – it’s the anonymous CIA station chief (David Costabile), who is only called “Bob” in the book, and whom the film refers to exclusively as “Chief.”
Unflatteringly portrayed as effete and prissy, Chief is disdained by the macho, no-nonsense security contractors because, in this rendition, he orders them to “stand down” for nearly 30 minutes while the consulate is initially under attack. (A congressional committee investigating the incident found no evidence of intentional obstruction by the CIA chief, yet he’s clearly a roadblock in the film. Feel free to boo and hiss. It’s cathartic.)
If the underlying text of “13 Hours” is Zuckoff’s book, its more pertinent scripture is the Gospel according to Michael Bay. The director and producer of the “Transformers” franchise (as well as “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Pain & Gain”), Bay seemingly can’t help but make a movie that is loud, brash, nuance-free and more glandular than cerebral. “13 Hours” is a movie that stimulates the production of adrenaline, not insight. “American Sniper,” for all its flag-waving, was a deeper film.
Working from a black-and-white script by Chuck Hogan (FX’s “The Strain”), Bay has put his stamp all over “13 Hours.” As exhausting as it is pulse-pounding, the nearly 2 1/2-hour film plays, at times, like a first-person-shooter video game, with extended sequences featuring the six main characters blowing away faceless bad guys, often shown as tiny black silhouettes creeping across night-vision goggles. They’re mostly referred to as “tangos,” military slang for “targets.”
At one point, Bay’s camera follows a flying mortar shell as it arcs through the air. Add an on-screen body count and you’d have “Call of Duty: Benghazi.”
Speaking of which, Bay keeps track of the time via a digital timer that pops up every few minutes in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The countdown clock is unnecessary and kind of annoying. Otherwise, “13 Hours” moves briskly, for the most part.
The movie centers on six CIA security operators, played by John Krasinski (Jack Silva); James Badge Dale (Tyrone “Rone” Woods); Pablo Schreiber (Kris “Tanto” Paronto); David Denman (Dave “Boon” Denton); Dominic Fumusa (John “Tig” Tiegen); and Max Martini (Mark “Oz” Geist). Other than the pseudonymous Jack and Boon, the other four characters’ names are real.
Despite a superficial effort to delineate the individual attributes of these men – a brand of movie humanization that comes courtesy of the occasional flashback, phone call home or lingering glance at a family photo – “13 Hours” is only able to spare a few moments on character development. I got more of a sense of who these “secret soldiers” were, as people, by watching a clip of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly interviewing some of them on television shortly before the movie came out.
One thing is never in doubt, whether in the book, in the movie or in real life: These men are heroes. As “13 Hours” makes vividly, even viscerally clear, the firefight in Benghazi was a nightmare of confusion and chaos, in which the Ansar al-Sharia bad guys were indistinguishable from the Libyan good guys (members of the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade militia, referred to as “Feb 17” in the film, whom the U.S. called on for assistance during the attacks). The film rightly honors them.
Weirdly, Paronto told Kelly in that TV interview that he missed the rush and brotherhood of that hellish night in Benghazi, saying that he would go back there “in a heartbeat” if he could. It’s both a credit to the film and a criticism that “13 Hours” is just enough of an entertainment to show us why someone might feel that way.
Two and a half stars. Rated R. Contains intense, bloody combat violence and crude language. 144 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.