The truth surrounding a controversial entity sits trapped behind iron walls of unbreachable public conceptions. Benghazi and Michael Bay are more similar than you’d think. The first is political shorthand for the throat-deep quagmire left in the Middle East by, depending on who you voted for that year, either a bloodthirsty administration that couldn’t leave well enough alone or a toothless one that left unwell alone too soon. Bay, on the other hand, has been typecast as a filmmaker for butch and booming blockbusters like “Bad Boys” and “Transformers.” He knows he is, too, and he’s anxious to change it.
That’s why a lot hinges on Bay’s latest, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff.
“Michael knows how people perceive him and he knew he was taking on something entirely different,” Zuckoff recently told The Boston Globe.
The main conceit of the film, as with the book, is to tell the “real” story behind the fatal Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, setting all politics aside. The main issue is that shying away from any stance on the matter leaves Bay with a movie pretty similar to the one he allegedly wasn’t hoping to make.
That is, whatever you expect from the Michael Bay brand, you can smell it stewing right away. Not five minutes after Jack Silva (John Krasinski) arrives in the dusty, rubble-strewn city, he and his fellow squad member Rone Woods (James Badge Dale) find themselves at gunpoint several times over, stopped at a barricade by Ansar al-Sharia militants. Air support is who knows where. The black standard waves ghoulishly from the rear of a truck. Seconds before things turn gruesome, the men make a hasty retreat, Silva bearing witness alongside the audience to just what’s at stake in the battle over Benghazi.
It’s as thrilling as it is frightening — at first anyways — and back on base, we get better acquainted with the sides in that battle. Silva, Rone and four other men work as CIA contractors, protecting the agency’s assets at a covert annex in the city. They’re real people, exhaustively interviewed by Zuckoff.
At the same time, though, six buff and bearded ex-military dudes tend to crank testosterone to cartoonish levels, made worse by the contrast writer Chuck Hogan pens between them and the soft-skinned and whiny spies — including the only speaking woman on site, who thankfully isn’t a lingerie model this time — in their stead.
It’s reductive, sure, but thankfully the cast has fun with the rivalry. David Costabile, as the base’s chief, yaps out demands from behind a much thinner beard and above a much rounder tummy. He is not Jason Bourne. He’s an Ivy League man, which never made anyone like anybody better. Little does he grasp the irony that, while he’s calling the shots, his life depends on “animals” like Tanto Paronto (Pablo Schreiber) to keep vigil — when he’s not “chubbing,” as he puts it.
But there are worse threats out there to the team’s masculinity than babysitting scrawny nerds. Outside the walls lurk the ominous others, and the allegiances are much blurrier. Civil war and the death of Moammar Gadhafi have left the people of Benghazi wandering aimlessly through the power vacuum. They buy looted Kalashnikovs and rockets next to produce in the market square. There’s an allusion or two to rival factions, with the February 17 Martyrs Brigade lending the Americans a hand.
At the same time, those “Middle Eastern Keystone Cops,” as they’re called, seem to be pretty chummy with the militants we meet in the beginning. The film does a terribly effective job of pumping that ambiguity into the pressure gauge, pending explosion. Not even the Libyan children, mischievously launching firecrackers outside the walls of the compound, seem trustworthy. One character lays it straight: “They’re all bad guys until they’re not.”
But that stark good-versus-evil relief is only so acceptable, especially if it dehumanizes an entire city. The opening credits help with some background, noting that in 2012, Benghazi hosted one of the few U.S. diplomatic outposts deemed “threat level critical.” The rest of the world, meanwhile, has understandably bailed.
That said, the portrait of Benghazi that “13 Hours” paints doesn’t lend a ton of legitimacy to the Americans’ reason for being there, especially when Tanto scoffs at U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s ill-fated optimism for the diplomatic mission there. Remember, this is several years after the urgent war of “American Sniper,” and these men are working on contract. Like that movie, there’s no disputing the heroism of these men once the bullets start flying, but their sacrifices beg the biggest question possible: If they don’t believe, then what gives?
Silva asks this very question during a lull in the battle: “Why can’t I go home and stay there?” His wife and children wonder the same thing. Even Rone, up until now so committed to doing the right thing, concedes that his purpose for the work has come and gone. The most poignant scene in the movie comes bookended by violence so “real” that it’s difficult to watch. Arguably, there’s a very thin appeal to seeing a man take a grenade launcher to the face, terrorist or otherwise. That’s why Bay’s avowed neutrality is such a cop-out. Maybe this is projection, but there’s no way to watch a human being chunked in half by a technical and not wonder what the greater point of it is.
There should be a better answer. If Bay aimed to make “13 Hours” his most real credit, then he gave the team his best effort. But the politics surrounding Benghazi are much too fragile to ignore, by filmmakers or really anyone looking to learn from them. By shuffling them to the side, it’s tough to expect any preconceptions to change.