Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 24 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
Michael Bay, who gave us the deathless Transformer series, rises a notch or two above that mindless action series in his latest, allegedly “true story.” Said to show what happened during terrorist attacks on two US installations in Libya on the night of September 11, 2012 during which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) and Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli) were killed, the combat film has something for just about everyone:
- Hillary Clinton-hating conspiracy theorists will relish the film because of its claim that the the top Agency officer in Benghazi, given only the name of “Bob” (David Costabile) refuses to give our heroes permission to rush in and rescue the besieged officials. Hillary Clinton is never shown or mentioned in the film, but her detractors will see the rule-slave “Bob” as a good stand in for her. That “Bob” twice refuses to green-light the rescue mission is highly disputed by the real CIA head, as well as other staff members. They claim that this plot device is a made-up fiction by one of the soldier-contractors interviewed by the book’s author. Thus the film would better be described as “a true story according to our convictions.”
- Those who prefer action to clarity will especially enjoy the film, as often we do not know what the heck is going on, thanks to the jittery hand-held camera, quick editing, and profusion of images thrown out machine gun-like at us. Some of this can be justified as showing “the fog of war” that envelops combatants. Also the characters themselves are often confused due to their inability to tell which shadowy figures that pass by the compound or they encounter in the streets are friendly, and which are deadly enemies. None of them but their Libyan interpreter Amahl (Peyman Moaadi), who dons helmet and bulletproof vest during the attack, can understand what is being said by the natives.
- Muslim-phoebes will draw from the film the lesson that all “rag heads” are vicious American-haters. One reviewer has reported that some in the audience cheered when one of our heroes fires and hits his faceless target, blood spurting from the doomed man’s head. This is repeated many, many times during the battle. However the filmmakers do offer a brief, sort of a warrior’s, tribute to the fallen foe in the brief scene after the battle has ended: a grieving young boy stands over the body of his brother or father and black clad women wail as they kneel beside the bodies of dead terrorists.
- Jingoists will take heart from the way in which those who, admittedly care nothing for Libya or its people, nonetheless show courage, resolve, and Yankee ingenuity in fighting against overwhelming odds. Thrown in are several shots of the American flag, from flying proudly over the compound to terrorists firing their guns at it, till the last shot of it lying bullet-pierced in the pool at the base of the pole.
No. 4 leads into the theme of “band of brothers,” fighting not so much for country or ideals, but for each other. This is perhaps the most positive part of the film, focusing on the six who survived the ordeal. The two we meet first were once Navy SEALs and long-time friends, Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale). Now they are private security contractors who have been sent as part of the CIA’s Global Response Staff to protect U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats in the city.
The others, also all ex-military men serving with the GRS in Benghazi, are Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman). Although we are given but brief glimpses of personal traits, such as Boon’s reading of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and the Skyping of several of them with their families back in the USA, we come to care about them. There is also a “sister,” Sona Jilliani (Alexia Barlier), a smart CIA case officer who during the battle offers support to the burly guys she earlier had resented for swooping her away from her dinner appointments when it appeared that terrorists were about to pounce.
Thus this is a film to be wary of, enjoyable perhaps on a visceral rather than a thinking level. The unequal struggle takes on the doomed feeling one gets when watching The Alamo. I even watched one of the soldiers, who spoke of being watched over by God because he was involved in a good cause, with the expectation of seeing him shot within a few seconds. (However, it was extremely difficult to tell the men apart because of their beards and the darkness, so it would take another viewing for me to discern what happened to him.) The warrior’s reference to Psalm 91 is no doubt one evoked by many men risking death in combat.
The filmmakers, by focusing on the combatants and showing just glimpses of generals and CIA officials hundreds and even thousands of miles away, claim that their film is not political. However, by its acceptance of the debatable claim of the book that the Ambassador and his aide could have been saved if the CIA boss, just a mile away, had not nixed the rescue mission, the film becomes very political. Even more so given that the film is being released during a highly strident Presidential election campaign. When the mercenaries do set out in their van, it is still over “Bob’s” protestations. That this, plus the military’s purported refusal to send in air cover later on, is false was determined by the report of the bi-partisan Senate Intelligence Committee, and even the Republican-authored House Armed Services Committee report accepted this conclusion, saying that “this issue appears to be settled” by the Senate investigation. (For a far more detailed examination of the film’s lack of truthfulness see the Vox World article at http://www.vox.com/2016/1/15/10774928/13-hours-benghazi-michael-bay.)
Also, the can-do and scornful attitude of the six heroes toward authority fits in neatly with viewers already convinced, no matter that the Congressional Benghazi Committee failed to prove Sec. Clinton guilty of any malfeasance, that the Secretary of State failed in her duty. That our heroes prefer fast, tough action to slow, non-showy diplomacy is shown in their skeptical attitude toward Ambassador’s Stevens decision to opt for personal contact with Libyans over security behind the walls of an embassy. We do see him making a speech to locals, who respond appreciatively, but the security detail clearly would perfer him to keep his dead down and not venture beyond the high walls.
Thus, as stated above, be wary of this film in regard to its historicity. I found it better than its detractors claim, but not the smoking gun that others assert in regard to any attempted cover up by Hillary Clinton and her supporters. This is another time when it is tempting to say, “It’s only a movie,” but the more I think and read about it, the more I believe it to be a disguised political attack. The film already has been used by Republican leaders as fodder for their campaign, and will no doubt continue to be employed against Hillary Clinton as the campaign heats up. Given the toxic debate over what happened on the night of September 11, 2012 at Benghazi, and who was responsible for the debacle, probably no “true story” film is going to be acceptable by everyone. See the film, but then check out the various pros and cons easily accessible on the Internet.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.