Sunday, January 17, 2016
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
A minor disclaimer here, I don't hate Michael Bay and I also have all the respect in the world for America's fighting forces. With that said, we can get some of the political stuff out of the way. This movie does not lay the blame for the failure to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens on anyone. It does describe in detail the events of that fateful September 11, eleven years after the same date in NYC. I know there are people in that part of the world who simply want to be left alone to live their lives. Ideally under a government that protects and nurtures them. It is very hard to imagine from the first hand description provided by the men who told this story, how we are going to be able to help them do that and how we are supposed to be able to tell the good guys from the bad. This part of the world is loaded with groups armed to the teeth who want nothing less than absolute control over they fellow man. Libya and Syria are failed states that have a long way to go before diplomacy will be of much benefit.
One of the striking things about the whole incident is how hopeful Americans were, including the Ambassador, and how sad it is that those hopes have largely been crushed. This film shows that it was not a lack of fortitude on the part of the Americans on the ground that are responsible for those failures. This is primarily a salute to the warriors that we have asked to go into these places to try and make a difference. If this were a work of fiction, I know that some people would be criticizing the cliche story points of men separated from their families or the comradery of warriors in battle. The reason those things are cliches however is because they are true and they mean something to the people involved. The actors and director do an outstanding job in this film in presenting men who live for this kind of service but also the way they dread the price that they pay to self actualize this way.
Technically, these guys were not soldiers at the time, they were private contractors doing the job of soldiers. The story shows how the chain of command becomes problematic when this private security team, filled with the best kinds of former military personnel, has to but heads with the CIA and State department officials they are working with. Since they were employees of the agency, they deserve the status of heroes rather than mercenaries, which is a term some have used to describe these kinds of private contractors. The men in this story see their loyalty to the U.S., it's mission in the area and the people on the ground they are there to protect. John Krasinski and James Badge Dale play the two main figures in the story, Jack and Rone. Their relationship goes back to earlier service but the work they are doing and the co-workers on their team are clearly part of a brotherhood as evidence by the loyalty they show one another. Others at the scene made sacrifices as well and all of them fit well into the stereotype of single minded military guys with hearts of gold. If half the stuff that is shown in this film is depicted accurately, they are heroes many times over.
I started out by saying I'm not a hater of Michael Bay. That does not mean I will defend his "Transformers" movies, they are for the most part, loud mechanical exercises in cinematic excess. He can however build tension, stir patriotism and explode things in a way that make the story he is telling invigorating. It looks like he just needs a good story to make a good movie and here he has one. Back in 2001, he was celebrated for a shot in the trailer for the then upcoming "Pearl Harbor". It was a point of view sequence of a torpedo bomb being dropped during the December 7th attack. The movie never lived up to the awesomeness of that shot but it was clear that he had a good eye and the technical ability to make something like that feel real to us. We are presented with a couple of similar shots in this film and they work dramatically in the climactic battle that produces the biggest emotional tolls in the film. There are a few of his other excesses on display that show he directed the film but don't manage to take us out of the experience. John Woo likes flying birds, Michael Bay likes windblown cloth floating over the scenes of mayhem as a serene counterpoint to those events. There is a lot of shaky camera work in the film as well so if you get motion sickness let me recommend that you sit near the back of the theater.
The tension in the lead up to the critical day is thick, but not nearly as deep as the tautness during the firefight. The visualization of what must have happened to Ambassador Stevens is compelling, although the final script of his death is speculative. The fight at the CIA Annex however is well documented by the men who survived it and wrote the book that this movie is based on. It is never clear who is on your side and who is simply waiting to kill you. This was an ongoing conundrum for the tech team in the compound, who needed to know who to shoot and which lives to spare. That's a tough question to have to ask when there is gunfire and weapons all around you. It looks that the team did the best that anyone could have hoped for under the circumstances. I was incredibly moved by the final screen shots of the film and it was a reminder that what we saw for the previous two hours was not a make believe story, thought up to entertain us, but a dramatization of real events, designed to honor those who gave all for their country and their fellow warriors.