When a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi is overwhelmed by Islamic militants, six security contractors risk all against impossible odds to save 31 Americans. Based on a true story. [Dir: Michael Bay/ John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge Dale/ 144 min/ Action, Thriller/ Incompetent Government]
13 Hours is not a political film. There is almost no mention of politicians or policies, other than a few undisputed facts to sketch the background of why Americans were sent into Libya in 2012, and certainly no verbal indictment of any elected or appointed officials. And yet, this is the film most likely to influence the current U.S. election, because you can’t watch it without a certain name coming to mind.
When it’s stated in teletype across the screen at the opening that the U.S. government ordered air strikes against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and when we hear the voice-over of President Obama explain that the airstrikes will enable Libyan democracy to finally take hold, the obvious thought that comes to mind is: who was responsible for U.S. foreign policy at the time? Who was advising the president to make the airstrike? Who naively thought that taking out Gaddafi would result in a sudden flowering of democracy? Of course, that’s right, it was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Any president in the last several decades could have killed Gaddafi at any time but none did. Why, all of a sudden, was it a priority? Hadn’t we just experienced a hard lesson in the difficulties of regime change and establishing democracy among people little used to it?
In any case, as is obvious from events on the screen, things didn’t play out according to plan. Instead of suddenly embracing democracy, Libya descended into a chaos of rival gangs.
Into this chaos, someone sent Ambassador Chris Stevens, accompanied by only a light security detail. From whom do ambassadors get their orders? They report directly to the Secretary of State, in this case…Hillary Clinton. On September 11th, 2012, anniversary of 9/11, you might think that some extraordinary precautions would be taken. The only precaution ordered was that the ambassador was told to stay in his lightly-defended compound. As it happened, and as we see on the screen, the compound was suddenly overrun and set on fire by Islamic militants.
And so the action begins. The two or three security people assigned to protect the ambassador risk all for the compound’s defense, but they are outnumbered 20 to 1. They call for help…but no help comes. One is reminded, ironically, of the Hillary Clinton “3 AM” campaign commercial—“who do you want in charge of answering the phone when there is trouble in the world at 3 AM?”
Enter the real-life heroes. Overhearing the catastrophe, six contractors assigned to defend a CIA annex a mile away decide to take matters into their own hands. Time and again they are told to “stand down.” It’s not their job to defend the embassy, they are told; that’s for the professionals. But the professionals never come. Finally, they can stand the distress calls of the dying embassy staff no longer and defy orders to save whom they can.
Back in Washington orders are given for a faraway force in Europe to begin heading to Benghazi, but that will take some time. Meanwhile, the six contractors take on dozens of Libyan fighters, rescue embassy staff, and get back to the CIA annex, which will certainly be the next target.
Amidst all this is the fog of war. Friends and enemies are indistinguishable, and all are armed. U.S. rules of engagement require the Americans to shoot only when threatened. Does the sudden arrival of a truckload of heavily-armed young men in the middle of the night constitute a threat? No, you have to wait till they actually do something hostile. Of course, by then it may be too late.
At the CIA annex, our heroes fight off wave after wave of attack. They call for help, at the very least for the flyover of a U.S. jet to frighten back the oncoming mob, but no support is ordered and none comes. They are alone. Again that name comes to mind, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Why did she or no one else in the Obama administration call for rapid air support to back these men up?
In the midst of the battle, one of the heroes matter-of-factly comments to another that he heard on the news that this was all caused by a video. There is no passing judgment in what he says; it’s just something he heard. And yet the audience knows, because Congressional investigations subsequently revealed, that the video story announced to the press by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a fiction–she knew in that very moment that the attack was terrorism-related, and that the man arrested for making the video was innocent (not to mention protected by the First Amendment).
And so we are reminded, in the midst of this battle–while heroic, honorable men were dying to defend fellow Americans–that back home those in charge were openly lying about their own culpability, obfuscating to cover their own behinds, and deleting emails to cover the lies.
No, 13 Hours is not a political film. There are no speeches, no mention of any names. But this is a case where the facts not only speak for themselves but hang in the air while bullets fly around and people die, and it gives this non-political film decidedly political consequence.
Director Michael Bay had a brief visit from the Obama administration’s CIA while the film was still in production. Presumably it was more than a social call. But if the visit had the effect of spinning anything in the agency’s favor, it isn’t apparent in the film. An interview of the surviving heroes indicates that the story sticks pretty closely to the facts. Kudos to Michael Bay for not caving. (Apparently he is not part of the Hollywood borg.)
As entertainment, this is a solid action film, but unlike many action films this one also touches the heart. We see plenty of heroism—the impossible odds, the fight to save lives, the grit of these men who suffer and fight on. But they are not stock action characters. We also see their personal sides, the pictures they carry of their families, the brief heartfelt phone calls knowing it may be their last, and ultimately their loss and what it costs them. It’s a rule of mine that when I watch a film there has to be at least one character I care about. In this film I cared about them all.
External Reviews of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
“It is impossible to experience the gripping new film 13 Hours and escape this conclusion: Obama and Hillary Clinton have lied through their teeth, gums, and cheeks about Benghazi…Riveting, intense, and highly suspenseful.”
“Michael Bay just made a film critical of a sitting president’s foreign policy, and knocked it straight out of the park…a compelling, unbearably tense, brilliantly choreographed action film.”