Thursday, July 28, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. A Review


The law of averages dictates that at least once, someone even as simply horrible as Michael Bay may actually stumble onto a good film.  13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, is such a film.  Taking lots of cues from other war films like Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down, 13 Hours is relentless in its pacing, its portrayal of men caught in the chaos of war, and is surprisingly nonpartisan given the still-unanswered controversy over what exactly happened that awful night. 

2012, Benghazi, Libya, one of the most dangerous cities in the world after the fall of Libya's dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.  Despite this, the U.S. maintains a diplomatic presence with a consulate.  Into this comes Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Special Operations officer who comes here to earn money for his family by working for a spell at "The Annex", a semi-secret CIA facility at Benghazi.  His friend Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) has brought him on board, and he bonds with the other SO at the Annex, but there's no love lost between them and the Annex Chief, Bob (David Costabile), who constantly puts the agency's needs over everything else and is excessively by-the-book.

Ostensibly there to protect CIA interests and Annex agents, things get more complicated when Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives to improve relations between the U.S. and whatever passes for civilian government in Libya.  A true believer in diplomacy and democracy, Stevens insists on staying at the Consulate Compound with a small guard despite the growing danger and unrest.

September 11: the Arab world is enflamed by a video mocking the Prophet Mohammed.   (At this juncture I'd like to point out the Arab world was similarly enflamed when pictures of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif kissing the Jewish Barbra Streisand for their roles in Funny Girl were released, so the Arab world appears to combust pretty easily, but I digress).  At this time, the Consulate becomes visibly in danger as it is besieged.  Ambassador Stevens guard desperately attempts to save the Ambassador and more importantly begs for help from all sides.  The Annex is a few miles away, equipped, and both ready and willing to go to their aid.

It's here where Chief Bob puts his foot down: as the Annex is suppose to be a secret base, and as he is adamant about not engaging civilians so as to not 'antagonize' them, he stubbornly refuses to allow the SO to go to the Ambassador's aid, even if it means the men at the Consulate will die.  Silva, Woods, and the others watch in anger and frustration as they are told to stand down while the men at the Consulate meet a fiery end.

At a certain point, they've had it. Disobeying Chief Bob, they take off, taking their interpreter with them.  Reaching the Consulate, they find only Scott Wickland (David Giuntoli), one of the Consulate security team who attempted to save the Ambassador and another of the security detail, Sean Smith.  In the confusion and fire the attackers set, Wickland lost track of both of them.  The SO find Smith's body, but cannot find Ambassador Stevens.

Rushing back to the Annex, with a clearly disoriented Wickland going the wrong way only to reverse himself despite his mental confusion, it's only a matter of time before the Annex itself will come under siege.  Now it's Chief Bob's turn to beg for help, and it will take several hours and many delays before it gets here.  The Annex is now under siege, with men constantly making efforts to attack.  Into this long dark night, the men not only attempt to keep themselves and the others alive, but think on their families.  Silva in particular is in a contemplative mood, as the father of three daughters just found out via Skype or a Skype-like feature a few hours earlier that his much-harried wife is pregnant.  He has to get back to her.

After a long battle, help finally arrives and they are spirited off, though Tyrone has been killed during a last-minute assault.  Ambassador Stevens has been found, but the earlier reports of him being merely injured at a hospital prove untrue: he is dead.  Other members of the Annex are left in literal pieces, and the Annex desperately keeps them both alive and in somewhat working order.

In a post-script, we find that shortly after the attacks, a large group of Libyans demonstrate against the violence at the Consulate and beg forgiveness for the murders of the Ambassador and the three others.  We also learn what became of the SO group, with some of their faces altered.

13 Hours is relentless in its pacing, rarely giving us a moment to pause. We do get a few moments of calm, but for the most part we are thrown into the dangerous and chaotic world of Libya almost right from the get-go.  An early scene involves a stand-off between Libyans and Tyrone/Jack, and here is where Bay shocks us by giving us a real moment of tension in this Mexican standoff. 

What makes this scene particularly effective is that Michael Bay opts against being Michael Bay.  There's no wild cutting, no jumping about.  The scene itself is remarkably clean, clear, and lacking in the movements and bombast Bay usually gives us. 

Throughout much of 13 Hours, we get a remarkably clear film, at least for the chaos of the fog of war.  Sometimes the cinematography is downright beautiful and creepy simultaneously.  In the area behind the Annex nicknamed "Zombieland", the imagery of the attackers coming makes it look as if it a graveyard filled with ghosts or monsters, the night vision enhancing the beautiful horror of it all.  An early chase scene involving a bulldozer is equally thrilling and chilling, down to where those chasing the SO men met a gruesome (but not overtly visually ugly) end.  Bay doesn't shy away from sometimes brutal imagery, horrifying, but unlike other of his films that glorify in bombast, the violence was thoroughly in context and not gratuitous.

Everything about 13 Hours is pretty relentless, including Lorne Balfe's pulsating score.  It constantly adds to the sense of impending doom and sheer terror in the brutal fight.

In terms of the performances, you simply couldn't have gotten a far better cast than he has here. Krasinski is an absolute revelation as Silva, the former sarcastic voice from The Office not just becoming physically powerful but also one of intensity and emotion, the backstory of his wife and children away in the safety of America coming in bits without overwhelming the story.  When we see Tyrone killed and another OS member, Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini) is in literal pieces, we feel the shock, sadness, and horror of it.

Of course, herein lies one or two issues with 13 Hours.  Sometimes we didn't know the members well enough (sometimes I didn't know who was whom).  The text detailing what happened was so hard to read, making things at times confusing.  Finally, Bay couldn't resist giving us the mortar POV, bringing back memories of Pearl Harbor.   

Finally, I'd like to address issues of politics and potential bigotry.  First, 13 Hours actually went to strong lengths to not make this racist or politically charged.  The story of how an anti-Mohammed video sparked mass protests gets mention, but the film doesn't say whether it and of itself caused the attack or not.  The film also shows that Libyans en masse were appalled by the actions against the Americans.  13 Hours is as respectful of both sides as possible given the highly-charged and still sensitive story.

13 Hours is an intense, powerful, heartbreaking film, one that hits you visually and emotionally.  It has action and emotion, a rare mix that should appeal to men and women.  It's about the best film I've seen all year. 

2016 is certainly an insane year in just about every respect.  We have two lousy candidates for President.  Six remakes, 27 sequels, 3 films based on video games...and one of the best films of the year comes from the man who brought us the Transformers franchise. 

Who can explain the insanity of 2016?


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