The prospect of a Michael Bay movie about Benghazi is contemporary American absurdity at its finest. The maker of hugely successful disasters, overblown, crude, racist, misogynistic, incomprehensible, telling the story of one of the most ridiculous issues of our time, a tragedy crudely trumped up into an inane scandal by the basest elements of our political culture. After the jingoistic marketing around Clint Eastwood’s hit American Sniper a year ago (which I believe completely misrepresented that film), how could 13 Hours, in the hands of a far less sophisticated and nuanced filmmaker, hope to be anything but a wildly offensive distortion of history at best, and a piece of vile propaganda at worst? Well, I’m somewhat happy to say that 13 Hours is not nearly as racist as you’d expect it to be. It is crude, it is overblown, it does completely lack subtlety, but Bay, true to his only real belief as a filmmaker (that his movies should amass a fortune), has attempted to make a film that will appeal to all audiences, it sidesteps the kind of cartoonish racism one would expect in a war film set in North Africa and instead appeals to much deeper, much broader base instincts in the American audience: our love of firepower, our distrust of government, our isolationism.
We join the film with John Krasinski, veteran Navy SEAL, as he joins a small band of CIA contractors working security at a secret intelligence outpost in Libya. The first 45 minutes or so of the film introduce the various characters and set the stage for the lengthy siege to come. The security team is lead by James Badge Dale (a terrific performance from an actor who should be a major star) and hindered in every way by the CIA station chief played by David Costabile as the Platonic ideal of every terrible bureaucrat from every Hollywood action film since at least 1982. When the American Ambassador arrives with woefully inadequate security in a city teeming with myriad armed groups with competing interests, the stage is set for the attack and our heroes’ desperate response to it. That will take up the rest of the film’s running time, and as a pure war movie, this is as good as anything Bay has ever done. The setup carefully establishes the geography of the two compounds that will be attacked, along with the Americans’ total lack of preparation for what will come. The battle sequences themselves are beautifully shot by cinematographer Dion Beebe, echoing his work with Michael Mann on Collateral and Miami Vice in capturing in eerie digital light the blues, greens and purples of the battlegrounds at night. Far from the incoherent swirl of contextless motion that makes the action scenes of Transformers so numbingly boring, the cutting here is precise and fluid, the sounds and textures of combat harrowingly specific. At it’s best, the film is an updated version of the great Cy Endfield film Zulu, in which a small British outpost must stand for a day and a night against a massive Zulu army. That film is marked as much by the very British professionalism and courage of its soldiers as it is by the undistinguished mass of unknowns that make-up the enemy. A film about a tragedy of Imperialism that focuses on the instruments of the Imperialists as victims (and heroes) and almost completely ignores the Imperialized, presenting them as an undifferentiated unknowable Other.
In comparison, 13 Hours‘s depiction of the Libyans is almost nuanced. A local translator is forced into action and acquits himself honorably in spite of his very justified fear, the local friendly militia is treated, if not exactly with respect, then at least with a recognition of ally status. Inevitably, in a film about a conflict in which the Americans have no way of knowing which locals are friends and which are enemies, there are many paranoid shots of Arab men looking mysterious, but also such as many surreal moments of life in Benghazi going on as if there isn’t a war afoot: repeatedly the Americans see men contentedly watching soccer while buildings explode around them: the normalizing of terror in a war zone. The same generosity is not, however, afforded the CIA agents who run the facility, who range from incompetent to cowardly to villainous in their ineffectuality (the film explicitly lays the blame for the Ambassador’s death on the feet of the station chief, who refused to allow the soldiers into a desperate and confused situation (which may very well have been the wrong choice, the soldiers in question certainly believe so (the film is based on a book which chronicles their account of the night), but the film doesn’t even offer the possibility that if he had sent them in immediately, he may just as well have been responsible for killing not only the soldiers (were the attackers waiting for them in ambush), but every agent at his facility as well, which would have then been left undefended). No, every CIA agent is that ultimate American villain: the intellectual bureaucrat, from their polo shirts tucked into their slacks to the woman who can’t walk down a ladder without falling. The real heroes are the men of action, the ones who can do things and suffer the real costs of the intellectuals’ game-playing, which they can’t understand and don’t believe in.
The result is a film that argues not in favor of any one political position: this is not the anti-Clinton screed it might have been and that many will likely sell it as regardless. Rather it is a film that suggests that the whole idea of American involvement in the outside world is pointless: that we simply shouldn’t be there, that our lives are too valuable to waste trying to help “those people” sort out their countries (or help defend Americans like the base chief). This strain of American belief runs very deep, and lies at the contradictory core of the politics of the post-9/11 wars. Michael Bay is surely not one to examine a contradiction of any kind, rather he simply reflects it, embodies it. In one of the film’s final images, the women and children of the slain attackers cry and mourn over the bodies of their dead men, a stark reminder of the human cost of the conflict, that it affects not just Americans but the Libyans as well. A few minutes later, as the surviving American soldiers drive away from the compound, one of them, played by Pablo Schreiber, tells their translator, a man whose heroism has earned the respect of the Americans, that “you gotta get your country sorted out” putting the onus on the Libyans themselves for devolving into civil war and a failed state. My colleague Matt Lynch remembers the line slightly differently, as a more neutral and more hopeful “it’s gonna get sorted out”, but either way the point is that America has no business being caught up in a conflict the facets of which it can barely comprehend, the consequences of which are impossible to foresee and the costs of which are invariably born most by the men and women who serve. We are isolationists who love our war heroes.