Heroes and Politics in ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’

The world in this version of Benghazi is both awful and glorious, outsized and shrinking, poignant and repetitive.

“Movies that honor the military, like Lone Survivor, definitely do better in Texas, Arizona and Nevada than in San Francisco and New York.”

Paramount vice chairman, Rob Moore

“Black Hawk Down.” Two US soldiers nod at one another and scowl. They’re in Benghazi, down the road from the US embassy outpost in 2012, and they’re assessing what’s in front of them by looking back. Boon (David Denman) and Tonto (Pablo Schreiber) are also in “Benghazi”, that most resonant catchword turned into a Michael Bay movie called 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Here, they’ve made the connection between their historical moment and another, their movie and another, Ridley Scott’s 2001 release, Black Hawk Down.

Scott’s movie resonates throughout Bay’s, in the chaos of failed states, the clumsiness of American administrators, the heroism of American soldiers. Here, Boon and Tonto are secret in the sense that they’re not officially military, but instead, contracted by the CIA to look after assets; that is, the outpost and the CIA base where they’re stationed. Deemed the Global Response Staff (GRS), they’re reminded repeatedly by the station chief named Bob (David Costabile) that their objective is to keep a low profile. Like the cops in so many buddy cop movies, the guys are smarter than their boss, and so, when they exchange glances or phrases like “Black Hawk Down”, you know that they know that he doesn’t know what needs to be done — and that they do.

In this case, of course, they need to save Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), trapped at the outpost as an increasing number of angry militiamen come at the facility and fall back, come at it and fall back. The rhythm and the calculation don’t surprise the GRS, led by longtime buddies and ex-SEALs Rone (James Badge Dale) Jack (John Krasinski). If they don’t precisely anticipate the assault, they do see, pretty much immediately, how it could happen, as they tour the outpost prior to Stevens’ arrival and note the lack of security and lack of his security detail’s experience. Looking out on the swimming pool, the soldiers list the problems they see, while you can’t help but see a US flag blowing in a conveniently dramatic wind. Again, you know that they know… well, everything.

Based on a book by Mitchell Zuckoff, the movie might look to be sidestepping “politics” in its focus on good men in a bad place. It assumes your basic knowledge of “Benghazi” that Stevens and three other men died, that the US — intelligence and armed forces — didn’t respond well or quickly, that things went horribly wrong. If the movie doesn’t pick on President Obama or Hillary Clinton directly, it does allow for a couple of familiar criticisms, as when the guys note what’s wrong in US news coverage or wonder out loud (and frequently) about how they can tell the difference between enemies and friendlies.

Running into young men with guns on the streets, the soldiers ask, “Are you Feb 17?”, a local militia called on to assist during the siege. The kids with guns mumble and say yes, not looking so different from the soldiers, themselves, young and on emergency duty, dressed in shorts and vests and helmets fitted with night vision goggles.

You might guess that the Feb 17 kids are underprepared, or worse, that they’re not who they say they are. You’d never say either about Rone’s men, who spend their downtime reading Joseph Campbell, lifting massive weights, and talking to their families back home via iPads. You’re inclined to cringe every time one of them says he wishes he was home or learns that his wife is pregnant, but you have no doubt that when the times comes — when mortars are exploding and shots are firing, they are absolutely soldiers, to a man; expert marksmen, field operatives, and strategists.

This means that even as they might be dismissive of their enemies’ seeming mistakes, they can also admire what they do well, namely, the Black Hawk Down-style plan, a series of assaults where one might be cover for another, where relentlessness and commitment to a scheme. This puts the enemies at odds with the CIA station chief Bob, who has no plan, but only keeps insisting that the soldiers wait for orders to proceed. This even as these orders are never forthcoming, as the officials back in DC, surrounded by monitors and informed by drone images, can’t decide what to do. When Rone comes at Bob — an incarnation of the incompetence and unmanliness — again and again, yelling that they must go rescue the AMBO Chris Stevens, all Bob can do is whine, “Stand down!” until, at last, Rone just ignores him and goes in anyway.

He and his men find unmitigated disaster at the outpost, and so return to the CIA station, also in need of defense. This occasions a second set of battles, more waves of bad guys, and more valiant stands by the secret soldiers. At this point, with the fight full on at the station, Rone instructs Bob that he’s no longer in charge: “You’re in my world now.”

That world is both awful and glorious, outsized and shrinking, poignant and repetitive. A few too many first-person shooter frames might help viewers to feel engaged in some familiar ways, but they’re designed, in games and here, to bring pleasure. As sad as the soldiers may be to lose comrades and to fail in their mission, as exasperated as they may be when they realize their commanders are bungling or ignorant, the movie reinforces their belief in each other and their idea of themselves. This idea extends to images of the enemy survivors, as well, also looking lost, also mourning their dead.

In these images and in those of the Americans when morning comes, the movie celebrates soldiers’ survival, their ingenuity and heroism, their efforts to save one another and to do what’s right in the world they know. But it stops short of challenging that world. Instead, it undertakes to “honor the military”, as Paramount’s Rob Moore puts it, conventionally and sentimentally, and entirely politically.

RATING 4 / 10