Watching a film is a rare occurrence for me these days. Not just because finding a film that appeals to me is a rare occurrence, although that is a factor, but more because of my limited time. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy movies, I just don’t watch them. Instead, I fire them up as background noise while my hands are busy painting wargame figures or prepping the terrain for them to fight and die to protect. Sometimes this allows me to take risks that I wouldn’t normally take.
Which led me to actually watching 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. My expectations were pretty low – I figured it would be the same sort of generic film featuring flat characters and meaningless action that we saw in Act of Valor. (That film where we learned being an actual Navy Seal doesn’t mean you could act wet if you fell out of a boat.) Instead, something very, very different happened. I put down my brush, put up the paint, and sat down to give the film my complete and undivided attention.
This film was great. Easily one of the top five movies I’ve watched this year, and without question my favorite Michael Bay movie.
The characters are deeper than you find in most Michael Bay films. They should be – these were real people after all – but the script and direction gave each character time to develop and motivations that made sense. All of the characters. Even the CIA station chief who represents the major foil for the main protagonists is allowed moments late in the film that provide context for what seem like stupid or obnoxious decisions he makes in the first act. The ambassador, in his limited amount of screen time, is presented as an glad-hander at first, but not a two-dimensional idiot. He’s just a little naive, no great crime, and he is given a quiet dignity when the attack begins, and a moment of reflection in the closing credits that leaves the viewer with a deep sense of regret at his death. The blonde female diplomat swept up the action could well have been a vapid corporate drone or governmental bureaucrat, but is instead shown in a deeply sympathetic light. She isn’t shown as selfish or naïve, but as a woman caught in the middle of competing interests the same as the titular six secret warriors.
Then there are the severely undermanned and unprepared security personnel at the embassy. Tough operatives, they are initially painted as braggarts and tough guys who don’t understand they are completely out of their element. It quickly becomes clear that they know their limitations, and much of their bravado is either a mask to hide their worry or a deliberate attempt to bluff their way through a situation they are ill-prepared for. Similarly, the nebbish local Libyan guide and interpreter pressed into service as a gunman might have been the comic relief, but his willingness to fight on when he could easily lose himself in the streets of Benghazi and in spite of his fears create a hero the equal of the ultra-warrior special forces.
For my money, the lesser troops steal the movie. The six secret warriors have years of training and experience and all the best toys. They’ve been through fights like this before. They know what to expect and have developed the muscle memory and coping mechanisms to literally soldier on through figurative hell. The embassy security detail, the interpreter, and even a few local soldiers who stay to help the Americans fight off wave after wave of attacks don’t have those luxuries and yet when given a chance to run, they stay to fight for redemption, for their friends, and for their country.
As if that isn’t enough, the film even takes a moment to mourn the senseless death of the faceless attackers. This short moment of honoring the valor of men who fought and died against incredible odds in no way excuses their actions. It’s just a brief touch of humanity to remind the viewer that real blood was spilled, real tears shed, and real lives lost and taken. It is respectful and forgiving without being entirely sympathetic.
Unlike some of Michael Bay’s films, you can actually follow the action in this one. Early scenes lay out the geography of the battle for the Benghazi ambassador’s residence and the nearby CIA station that comprise the major set pieces. The lines of attack by the *ahem* protestors angry about a YouTube video *ahem* are painted in clear establishing shots repeated as needed to demonstrate who is where and make it easy to understand what’s about to happen and then to follow along as it actually happens.
As this film tells the story from the point of view of the American Six, all of the higher level politicking and excuse making and finger-pointing that cost a woman an election get short shrift. Those are briefly touched upon, but only within the context of the immediate experience of the men who fought and died for that woman’s lies. They don’t know what was going on any more than the average American, and Bay conveys that sense of uncertainty and betrayal without obvious or heavy-handed messaging. Give the man credit, he understood such moments to be un-necessary. The backstory casts a pall over the proceedings and lends them greater weight, but we all know what happened. Bay let the viewers fill in the gaps, and this only makes the tragic deaths that much more poignant.
The hashtag-resist crowd won’t like this cinematic reminder of their candidate’s failures, but everyone else will appreciate it for the touching and emotional experience of men who dedicated themselves to…well, they didn’t really know in the end, except that when their government abandoned them, they were there for each other. And that’s a great message for everyone to remember.