Mark Reviews Movies

13 Hours


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, Alexia Barlier, David Costabile, Peyman Moaadi, Toby Stephens, Demetrius Grosse, David Giuntoli, Matt Letscher

MPAA Rating: R (for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language)

Running Time: 2:24

Release Date: 1/15/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 14, 2016

The name "Benghazi" brings with it a lot of baggage—some of it earned but most of it likely not. On September 11, 2012, a group of militants attacked a diplomatic outpost and, through the early-morning hours of the next day, a top-secret CIA annex in the Libyan city, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including a United States ambassador. As unclear as the resulting dissections of what happened and what didn't happen on that day—as well as in the days, weeks, and even months leading up to it—might be, 13 Hours is helpful in the way it shows that the situation on the ground was far more confounding.

The movie doesn't quite want to admit that reality. The screenplay by Chuck Hogan (adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff's non-fiction account) treats the frustrations and strategic opinions of those on the ground as fact, without offering anything beyond a broad concept of the bigger picture.

For example, a CIA analyst calls either the Pentagon or a military airbase in Italy (The movie is very sketchy on specifics beyond the here and now of the situation), and she requests that an F-16 fly over the annex, hoping that such a display of might will scare away the attackers. Whoever is on the other end of the call states that she doesn't have the authority to give that order. In response, she argues that her authority comes from the possibility that she and others likely will be killed if it doesn't happen. The next shot is of that airbase—its fighter jets sitting unattended on the runway.

It's a loaded piece of editing—one that eliminates whatever decision-making process is happening on the other end of that call. Instead, the movie jumps to a conclusion of impassivity or even apathy on the part of the powers that be. The jets never did arrive in Benghazi, but the movie never wonders if such a move would have been the correct one in the first place. From what we see here, it very well could have been an unwise decision, considering that even the people on the ground are repeatedly surprised by the amount and strength of the attackers' firepower.

These potshots, indirectly aimed at the usual suspects of partisan politicians and conspiracy theorists alike, are few and far between, although their number and frequency increase as the story unfolds. This is a movie that suggests it's better to err on the side of reckless action than to do so on the side of calculated inaction. Hogan and director Michael Bay seem to be arguing that "something" could have been done, but they never stop to consider if that enigmatic "something" should have been done.

When it sticks to what actually happened, the movie paints a bleak, desperate picture of the situation in Benghazi before and during the attack. The first section of the movie follows the security team assigned to protect the annex as they escort CIA personnel gathering intelligence in the city. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that this place has become a powder keg after the fall of Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Militias have free rein in the streets with weapons taken from Gaddafi's arsenal, which are now being sold in the city's central market.

Repeatedly, the members of the annex's contracted security team—made up of Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave Benton (David Denman), John Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark Geist (Max Martini)—find themselves in a situation in which they have no idea who is part of which local militia and with whom that group's loyalties lie. On the night of the attack, the team arrives at the diplomatic outpost (A decision that the annex's chief, played—in another loaded choice—with whiny indecisiveness by David Costabile, discourages), where Ambassador Chris Steven (Matt Letscher) and a member of his security team were killed. They discover men with assault rifles walking around the compound. Men with cellphones are taking pictures and making calls, and no one knows if the result will be support or another attack. A commander in the militia helping the United States even calls the leader of the group that attacked the diplomatic outpost and will eventually assault the annex ("I'm a good guy, but I know the bad guys").

The point, which is dreadfully effective throughout the movie, is that confusion ruled over these events. As portrayed in the movie itself, the majority of that confusion is intentional, although it should be noted that a good portion of it also comes from Hogan and Bay. As noted earlier, Hogan's screenplay omits vital context (which could have worked if the movie had remained entirely isolated to the attacks), and Bay's typical style of visual overload, with its reliance on rapid cuts and flashy cinematography (provided by Dion Beebe), does no favors for the logistics of what is happening.

What we learn is that a lot of things went wrong that night/morning in Benghazi, that a lot of them were unavoidable, and that the number of "what ifs" is incalculable. 13 Hours doesn't want to accept those facts, and its attempts to put forward simple solutions to a complex situation don't do justice to it or the people involved.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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