Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Just because Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's names are never mentioned during Michael Bay's punishingly long "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" and most of the filmmaker's vitriol is aimed at the CIA - or, at least, at the cartoonishly villainous CIA chief of base in Libya - doesn't mean that the film is apolitical.

In fact, if anything, Bay's latest picture is a near two-and-a-half hour advertisement of his worldview that can be spotted if you look carefully enough. And similar to his "Pearl Harbor" film, which is more watchable than this one, Bay has taken a tragic incident out of our past and used it as an excuse for him to fixate on weaponry and lots of explosions.

For those unaware of Mitchell Zuckoff's book of the same name, it relays the account of the attack on the CIA outpost in Benghazi during a visit by U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed along with several other men. The film is from the perspective of six men who were hired to work security detail and, by all accounts, held off the attacking insurgents. I'd imagine that we can take both the book and movie's account of their bravery without question.

However, those familiar with Bay's work - especially the execrable "Transformers" movies, one of which included a urinating robot, which was actually a step up from the vaguely racist droids featured in the second of the series - know that the director's worldview is fairly anti-government and pro-blowing-shit-up.

This is best exemplified during an early scene when one of the security detail - a guy, played by Pablo Schreiber, whose character exemplifies a certain brand of paranoia - dozes off during a speech Stevens gives on diplomacy.

A scene earlier than that one finds James Badge Dale's character, who has just picked up John Krasinski's Jack Silva - who is the closest thing to a lead character here - from the airport and is bringing him to the base. When stopped on the road by some armed Libyans, Dale's character goes full Trump and threatens not only to kill the men, but their families as well. Keep in mind that these are the men with whom we are supposed to be identifying.

When we finally meet David Costabile's sniveling CIA agent, who is sneered at for his antipathy towards blowing shit up, he's obviously set up as the villain, not because he'll later make questionable calls - at least, based on this film's screenplay - when the CIA outpost is under attack, but because he represents what Bay sees as the bureaucratic government official who refuses to step out of the way and allow the film's heroes to start blowing shit up. He also gets to mutter the widely debunked "stand down" order halfway through the picture.

A female CIA officer working at the outpost is also put in her place after she fails to fall in line during a particular operation. And near the film's conclusion, one of the few sympathetic Libyan characters - an interpreter who stays behind to help the security detail - is barked at by Schreiber that his country needs to figure out its own problems, which not only calls for isolationism but also implies that other nations cannot clean up their own messes without the help of the U.S.

Once the outpost is under attack, Bay does a decent enough job staging an intense series of shootouts between the mostly faceless insurgents, who lurk around every corner of the dark, and the security detail. However, more than one half of the film involves explosions and scenes of chaos, making it often difficult to discern what's going on.

And since this is a Michael Bay production, you'll find the obligatory sequences during which tough guys sit around between battles contemplating heroism as well as plenty of shots of the American flag, in this case tattered after being shot up by insurgents. The peak of absurdity - which almost rivals that animal crackers sequence in "Armageddon" - is a scene during which Krasinski's character finds out that his wife is in the family way during a conversation that takes place at a McDonald's drive-through. There's also a shot from a bomb's perspective, reminding us of the one from "Pearl Harbor" and further emphasizing Bay's interest in weapons over people.

None of this should surprise anyone. Bay rarely does subtlety and that is exactly what a film about the tragedy at Benghazi likely required. An intriguing film about the incident could be made that might interest persons from both sides of the aisle - a film, say, like Ridley Scott's powerful and intense "Black Hawk Down," which was set in Mogadishu, but features a similar scenario. But this is not that movie.

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