Sunday 8 August 2021

Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi (2016)

A recreation of the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the response by a small group of military contractors, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi (also known more simply as 13 Hours) demonstrates battlefield anarchy.

In 2012, Libya is in a chaotic political void after the overthrow of the country's dictatorship. Various militia groups, loyal to different causes and some of them holding extremist Islamist and anti-American views, attempt to control intermingling neighbourhood patches. 

In the second largest city Benghazi, the CIA maintains a secret Security Annex led by the Chief (David Costabile) and staffed by a combination of agents and Global Response Staff (GRS) contractors. Contractor Jack Silva (John Krasinski) reluctantly leaves his family and arrives in Benghazi to join the GRS at the request of his buddy Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale). Other GRS members include Oz (Max Martini) and Tig (Dominic Fumusa).

US Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) announces a visit to the city. Jack and Tyrone assess the embassy compound, about one mile away from the Annex, and deem it difficult to secure. But State Department officials are confident a deal with a local militia will deter any attacks. The Ambassador's visit coincides with elevated unrest, the embassy is soon under attack, and the CIA is caught flat footed. The GRS team has no clear orders but is determined to intervene to try and save American lives.

Directed by Michael Bay and based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, 13 Hours is a potent combination of Black Hawk Down and The Alamo. After setting the stage in the opening 45 minutes through the eyes of new arrival Jack, the focus is on a small group of outnumbered men facing a rampaging enemy force in a thick fog of war. With no help on the way they have to rely on their own experience and resources, fighting as much against fatigue and eroding hope as they do against their foes.

At 144 minutes, the film is substantively longer than needed. And try as he might with pictures of family members and some quiet interludes of conversation, Bay is unable to define the GRS men as individuals: burly and bearded, they all look the same, talk the same and behave the same. But given the prolonged running time, perhaps the most frustrating weakness is the complete absence of "other side" context. The men storming the embassy and then the Annex are all faceless villains, obviously willing to die but for an unknown and seemingly unimportant cause.

The combat scenes compensate, and once the shooting starts with the assault on the embassy, 13 Hours is essentially one prolonged battle in multiple chapters for the best part of 90 minutes. First the GRS men head to the embassy to try and rescue the ambassador, then they retreat to the Annex and have to defend the compound for several long hours from successive attack waves. Bay excels at recreating the uncertainty, anxiety and turmoil of battle from the defenders' perspective, always with an eye on the camaraderie and unique brotherhood bonds forged under fire.

The events at Benghazi represented multiple preparedness and response failures. 13 Hours' most biting commentary is in finding quasi-independent contractors forced to improvise their own mission as the only US heroes of a sad day.

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