13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is an adaptation of the book 13 Hours by Michael Zuckoff.  Michael Bay directs from a screenplay written by Chuck Hogan.

It is impossible to experience any kind of art and neglect your knowledge or emotions.  That makes it tricky to write about 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (13 Hours moving forward) because it's a film from Michael Bay, not one to shy away from outright racist philosophy in his films, based on a book of dubious veracity, and around possibly the single most politicized tragedy of the last decade.  I know people who donated $20,000 to the President Obama reelection campaign after seeing Republican challenger Mitt Romney smirk away the press while attacking Obama barely 24 hours later.  There are also folks in my life who found the Benghazi attack proof positive the Obama administration was intentionally obscuring how bad things were overseas.

I'm deeply critical of the ongoing Democratic embrace of drone warfare and loathe pretty much everything Republicans stand for, so the Benghazi tragedy was - just that - a tragedy.  What makes Bay's film so damn weird is that he dips the visual narrative into a light critique of both the prevailing Democratic and Republican perception of the event and what it meant to them.  So we've got bloodthirsty American soldiers threatening to turn a Libyan rebel's family to dust via drone while Jim from The Office wields assault rifles and wears vests with the logo of the Punisher (that hero of right-wing justice.)  But then we've got slow motion horror shots of Muslims natives praying before holding their guns up high and shouting their plans.

The token cowardly government official role is given to the perfectly cast David Costabile (in the background).

What do I make of 13 Hours?  Well, it's continuing the clarity of Bay's electric style he's been working on for so many years while smoothing over some of the moral issues.  One of the most vile films I've seen is his Bad Boys 2 when the ostensible "good guys" go tearing through a Cuban town with their SUVs murdering who knows how many people.  Bay recalls that moment when the private military contractors flee from a tail, hitting innocent bystanders with their vehicle, and destroying business stalls.  With so much collateral damage to Libyan life and property it's no wonder hardly any of the various rebel factions wanted us there.  Couple that with the dialogue of the private military contractors explaining they don't wanna be there either, and it brings up an unspoken question about just why we remained in Libya.

That's answered with a disquieting embrace of American ooh-ra exceptionalism from the "good guys" - who I'd like to remind readers are contract killers - ready to do what's "right" when the spineless guys from the government aren't.  Said spineless guy is played by David Costabile, whose face is custom-built for distrust, and serves as a reminder that the CIA is one of the most inept government agencies in the history of the United States.  A refreshing point about Bay's last movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, was that the typically spineless government guy was played with gravitas by Kelsey Grammar and had the reasonable point of, "Maybe having giant robots doing what they want and blowing up our country isn't a good thing."  I guess it's good to see Bay revert back to type, if only because it's at the CIA's expense.

At this point, you may have noticed I haven't bothered naming any of the private military contractors who serve as the protagonists of 13 Hours.  I will continue not bothering because there's nothing that separates the crew other than degrees of facial hair and skull structure.  They all have families we're introduced to in warm fuzzy phone calls in the days leading up to the attack, backgrounds in the real US military that bonded them, and are aching to kill when the sun goes down.  The lefty part of me wants to read this as a critique of the off-the-leash beast that is the private military industry.  Then the reasonable voice kicks in when we get a strikingly beautiful shot of the men doing manly fighting in multicolored lighting and I remember these are the badasses we're meant to be rooting for.

Are we meant to be rooting for them?  Spineless CIA guy makes a good point when they snap back against his orders because they're in Libya to protect US interests and not start conflict.  But the mere presence of the US in such an embattled realm is a source of conflict.  So the contractors go back to dancing around with flashlights to "Sexy and I Know It" and playing video games in-between their bouts of endangering Libyan civilians.  They don't even respect US ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), who is written as a bland political figure, and fall asleep during Stevens' speech.  If 13 Hours doesn't respect the US, the institutions they're supposed to be protecting, the Libyan civilians, then the question is what does it respect?

When this happened I surprised myself by laughing.

Nothing outside the action.  I enjoyed the way some of it was filmed, with a scary moment in the compound switching to a splotchy digital handheld that felt more like Michael Mann than Michael Bay.  There was also a moment where a maybe rebel attacker blew his own hands off but still has the energy to run away.  The sight of the maybe rebel attacker's friend, holding the now removed hands of the maybe rebel attacker, is an image so perversely funny intensified by the aggressive reaction of our protagonists toward the literally unarmed man.

Then the reasonable part of my mind kicks in again - Bay's making light of a man who just got his hands blown off, and I realize I have no idea who this movie is for.  The action is great to look at but the politics of 13 Hours go in every direction.  Bay's beholden to the tragedy of Benghazi but if he made this movie in any other setting then turbocharged the political critique he might have had something worthy of Paul Verhoeven.  He's not that daring, and neither is 13 Hours.

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Directed by Michael Bay.
Screenplay written by Chuck Hogan.
Starring John Krasinski and David Costabile.

Posted by Andrew

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