13 Hours Review
The attack on the US compound in Benghazi in 2012 has long been political ammunition in the US presidential race. 13 Hours, a retelling of the events, has added fuel to the fire. Is the film an indictment of Hillary Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State, as Republican contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have contested? Or is it only simply a story of bravery and survival?
One thing’s for sure, and it’s that the US government does not come out looking well. Told from the perspective of six security contractors hired by the CIA to assist its operations from a covert base in Benghazi, 13 Hours starts with the arrival in the city of Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), one of these contractors. A former Navy Seal, Jack is reluctant to be back, but forced into the situation by financial difficulties. Chuck Hogan presents a rather simplistic dynamic within the covert CIA base. The contractors are shown as friendly, easy-going, professional men who all miss their families, while the CIA agents are a snobbish Ivy League set, who let their arrogance get in the way of their performance. The CIA chief (David Costabile) is made out to be particularly unpleasant, along with colleague Sona Jillani (Alexia Barlier).
While Michael Bay eagerly supplies multiple crane shots of the two American compounds, Benghazi, and the neighbouring sea to set the scene, we aren’t given anything in the means of political or cultural context. The film starts with a potted history of Libya’s civil strife, but no mention is made of why Libyans might even want to attack the Americans. This makes the scenes of assault on the two compounds perplexing. Why are the groups of men so relentlessly willing to risk their lives attacking US presence? Bay and Hogan however eagerly emphasise that in Libya there are ‘enemies’ which are difficult to distinguish from civilians, and an near-unlimited supply of weapons.
It’s only when the attack kicks in - a little late into the film - that Bay’s work shines. Action is his realm, and this he does well. He also captures the logistical complexity of the situation: the various local factions and contractors; the lay out of the two compounds; the elements of US Defense responding (or more accurately, not responding) to cries for help. It’s so well paced that it is almost all right to ignore the flat and clichéd dialogues interspersed.
Thanks to the script too, it’s unfortunately difficult to give credit to anyone for performance: the parts are so stereotyped that there’s not much to work with. Krasinski looks suitably sympathetic and concerned about his family. So does James Badge Dale, who plays a fellow security man.
The film makes no direct reference to Hillary Clinton - and while the US government is made to look terrible, its failures seem more a product of poor inter-agency communication, a badly structured decision command, and of choices made by the CIA chief on the ground. The script peppers over-the-top patriotic overtones (not unlike last year’s American Sniper) but also includes surprising moments of nuance: someone criticises the Ambassador’s democratising speech; a shot of Libyan women and children mourning over their relatives’ bodies.
13 Hours is nothing great, but it’s a gripping watch, if you think of it purely as an action film. For your general knowledge of the attack and of the situation in Libya, however, you’re better off reading a book, or keeping up with the news.