In "13 Hours," Benghazi, a misguided Republican talking point turned internet punch line about right-wing paranoia, gets the ludicrous film treatment it deserves—and absolutely does not need—from Michael Bay, a grown man on record as saying "I make movies for teenage boys."
The events, in which militants attacked an American diplomatic compound in post-Gaddafi Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, resulting in the deaths of a U.S. ambassador plus three other Americans leading to questions of whether or not top brass, including Hillary Clinton, knew about it ahead of time and then hampered rescue efforts, are depicted in typical Michael Bay fashion. But whether Clinton specifically has anything to worry about, despite Ted Cruz closing a GOP debate with a film promo and Trump buying out a theater for a screening, is unclear, because by the film's account almost every person that was not one of the six hired guns is at fault for what went down. Like your average Reagan-era action movie, the spineless, desk-bound elites who went to Harvard and Yale and the wimpy analysts with more brains than brawn (especially women, more or less told to know their roles and shut their mouths here) are all a burden on the jock grunts they practically treat like untermenschen until crunch time.
As the main muscle-bound beard out of six, John Krasinski (you know, Jim from "The Office") has enrolled in the Bradley Cooper/Chris Pratt school of shedding comedy-bro origins via ripped-from-the-headlines pretend-military heroics. The rest of the group look like they all should be at a wildlife refuge in Oregon. And when they're not making calls home to their wives or jokey "no homo"-style overtures to each other they're just strangers in a strange land with a perpetually misleading whiff of underdog, noting the air is "pungent" and eyeing every Libyan as a potential enemy combatant. Not that one really goes to this sort of thing expecting a Vijay Prashad lecture, but aside from a handful of slides mentioning post-Gaddafi factionalism, the U.S. role in fomenting Mideast chaos and their clear military advantage overall is nonexistent.
To pin the faults of "13 Hours" solely on director Michael Bay ignores its similarities with a recent spate of prestige thrillers about American politics in the Middle East. Although there's a large difference between the overt propaganda of "American Sniper," the ambivalent, satisfaction-denying (if still edited for CIA approval) "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo," which was ostensibly liberal but still reliant on crazed Muslims, and this 'roids and testosterone affair, they all start to seem of a piece. And while this is clearly the least artful and most openly jingoistic of the bunch, the gritty faux-realist genre of moral compromise in a battle-hardened reality that an armchair ideologue can't parse still informs the proceedings (even if this one comes closest, by accident, to having its protagonists mouth vaguely anti-war sentiments about not wanting to fight Washington's battles). Bay claims the film is apolitical, a word trotted out to de-escalate political sympathies already attached to the hot-button issues these movies are cashing in on. Of course, schematic to the point of ahistorical with a firmly American point of view isn't apolitical. Like "American Sniper," much of the action involves soldiers under siege in a war-ravaged country without any acknowledgment of their involvement in the damage's creation.
And making an action movie out of an already drummed-up election season controversy isn't apolitical either, but it's also the only thing the film has going for it. Connecting the dots between "The Hurt Locker" and "Delta Force," the movie is evenly split between taut set pieces (shot by Michael Mann veteran Dion Beebe with an array of colors usually absent from typically drab depictions of these locales) and dumb one-liners. Passing a neighbor watching soccer while the firefight is well under way, Krasinski, practically looking for a camera to deadpan to, goes, "just another Tuesday night in Benghazi!" After one of the films' non-demonized Libyans, a translator, is suited up for combat despite an apparent lack of training, David Denman (Roy from "The Office") quips, "Well, he's not coming back!" Which, as a Libyan, is the best you'll be represented here. To his credit, Bay acknowledges the help and eventual sympathy received from locals, but the general framing suggests that humanity is only afforded to those who were with us instead of against us; otherwise you're shown as a rabid Islamist shooting up an American flag.
Marrying a Don DeLillo crowd passage to the "Borat" rodeo scene, Bay premiered the film at Cowboy Stadium like an emperor overseeing a gladiator match. My early afternoon screening, in Harbor East on the day "13 Hours" was released, was considerably lower key. Nonetheless, a man sitting behind me moaned and cheered every time a Libyan got shot, noting "I love that bitch" at one of the guns deployed for sniping. As photos of the real-life figures flashed across the screen, an older gentleman in the front row clapped and yelled "Thank you!" before turning to me and apologizing, saying, "Sorry, I just get emotional, you know?"
Having read enough reports of white terrorism, I do know. And that's what I'm afraid of.
"13 Hours," directed by Michael Bay, is now playing.