By Burl Burlingame
When a movie states at the outset “This is a true story,” as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” does, that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate story. It can’t be. The simple physics of time and space mitigate against a true moment-by-moment replay. In this case, 13 hours are shoehorned into a couple of hours, and characters are combined and events blended.
Here’s the kicker — movies aren’t reality. They’re, at best, impressions of reality, strained through a filter. Well, duh.
“13 Hours” actually spans about a week, during a critical, dangerous time in Benghazi. It’s just after the revolution, and just before the 9/11 anniversary in 2012. American ambassador Chris Stevens is trying to woo the disaffected Libyans, but there are dangerous anti-American elements out there, and it’s hard to tell who’s who. He’s holed up, not in well-guarded embassy, but in the seized compound of a former Libyan millionaire.
Only about a mile away, in a similar set-up, the CIA has an office. The difference between them is that the ambassador’s security is thin and new at the job, and the CIA’s security has a half-dozen tough, ex-military contract soldiers.
At the same time riots break out all of the Middle East over an anti-Allah YouTube video, militant forces of indeterminate origin assault Stevens’ compound, overrunning it, and then hit the CIA base. During the attack on Stevens, the CIA security team mounts an ad-hoc rescue mission and manages to retrieve some of the Americans at Stevens’ place, but not Stevens, who has already died in the smoke and fire.
They return to the CIA compound and fight off wave after wave on insurgents. It’s all very Alamo.
Needless to say, this is all soup and nuts for director Michael Bay, who never met a script he couldn’t blow up. Bay has peculiar talent for grand, crashing chaos — the sturmiest of drangs — and it’s all on display here. As a plus, Bay has discovered cameras mounted on drones, and so the eye of the screen flies merrily through the whizzing bullets and smoking rockets and shrieking bad guys and gut-crunching explosions. Yeah, baby.
This is probably Bay’s best film to date. It also has the baggage of political expectations. Hillary-haters will be disappointed, as the movie is focused on the firefight, not on political fireworks. But Hillary-haters already have their minds made up, so it doesn’t matter.
What “13 Hours” does do, and does so brilliantly, is recreate the absolute chaos and stifling options of urban warfare in the third world. It is the best film to do so since “Black Hawk Down.” Warfare in this region of the world is done door-to-door, with individual weapons, and the narrow streets lined with buildings of no more than two stories are shot traps and sniper fields. Add to that the near-impossibility of telling friend from foe, and you have essentially a no-win scenario.
Americans have always been quick to blame ourselves rather than credit the enemy. Chris Stevens was killed by a rabble of thugs, not by protocol glitches. It’s too bad that our tough contract soldiers were not able to rescue the ambassador, but the ambassador, by his own choice, was way out there in the badlands. There was no way to get aerial help to him in time — planes only fly so fast.
But should the air assets have been mobilized anyway? That’s one of the few questions raised by the film. My impression — and I thank “13 Hours” for the impetus to think upon it — is that modern warfare and modern communications work at cross purposes. The ease of communication leads to battles being commanded at long-distance, by multiple levels of command, instead of relying on the initiative of those few on the scene. Tragedies like Benghazi occur when there’s too many people in command and no one in charge.