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Just How Apolitical Is Michael Bay’s Bengazhi Movie, ’13 Hours’?

Just How Apolitical Is Michael Bay's Bengazhi Movie, '13 Hours'?

Michael Bay has insisted that “13 Hours,” which depicts the attack on a U.S. military compound in Benghazi, Libya on September 12, 2012, isn’t a political film. But critics aren’t buying it, and neither does Paramount, the studio that’s releasing it. Rather than leading with trade publications like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, they gave conservative media outlets like the National Review and Townhall a full week’s head start on running their reviews; while the movie had its public premiere at a football stadium in Dallas, numerous critics in New York were turned away from seeing it at all.

It’s true that you never hear Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama’s names in “13 Hours,” which is based on a nonfiction account credited to Mitchell Zuckoff and “the Annex Security Team,” the private military contractors who are the movie’s uncomplicated heroes. (The cartoonish subtitle “The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” thankfully, doesn’t appear on screen.) But there are enough references to the dawdling of POTUS and “State” (as in Clinton’s Department of) that, combined with the unflinching valor of its uncomplicated heroes to draw a clear divide between soldiers who act and bureaucrats who sit on their hands while brave men die. Given that his movies rely so heavily on U.S. armaments as set dressing, Bay’s practically an unofficial military contractor himself, so it’s no surprise he’s down on pencil-pushers.

“13 Hours” is effectively nerve-jangling, if often marred by Bay-ing incoherence. (“Lone Survivor” managed to convey the subjective experience of combat better, and without resorting to video-game overkill.) For a movie framed as a tribute to America’s fighting men, it’s woefully poor at differentiating one stocky, bearded figure from the next: John Krasinski and Pablo Schreiber stand out from the herd, but apart from that, it’s a blur. Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan are so focused on sticking to action that they don’t bother to build characters; they’re just patriotic signifiers in combat gear.

The movie’s monolithic focus on action is what’s mean to be apolitical, but it’s hardly an innocent or insignificant choice. By sticking to the contractors’ point of view, anyone outside their walled enclave — which is to say virtually every non-American character in the movie — is rendered as a cipher. Are the mobs who cluster outside the gates “tangos” (targets) or “friendlies”? As Schreiber’s character, who mimes falling asleep when U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens talks about building relationships with the locals, puts it, “They’re all bad guys until they’re not.”

Bay makes a few cutaways to smiling children in the streets, like a preemptive hex against those who might accuse the movie of racism. And — spoiler alert — the movie ends with an acknowledgement that thousands of Libyans thronged the streets in tribute to Stevens’ death. But it’s a poor counterweight to the visceral experience of tensing every time a dark-skinned man makes his way onto the screen, a potential threat that almost always becomes a real one. 

Ultimately, “13 Hours” is less gung-ho than isolationalist: As the survivors make their way out of the country, one advises a sympathetic local, “Your country’s gotta figure its shit out.” The contractors lament the lack of “that something bigger” that compelled them to enlist in the first place; defending David Costabile’s weaselly CIA station chief — the movie’s true villain — and a government that can’t be bothered to come to their rescue sure doesn’t cut it as a reason to die in the middle of nowhere for a country that doesn’t seem to want you there. Bay’s filmmaking angries up the blood, but if you want a target to take it out on, you’ll have to look closer to home.

Reviews of “13 Hours”

Justin Chang, Variety

“I feel like I’m in a f—ing horror movie,” a soldier murmurs as gunfire erupts around him, and his words turn out to be a pretty accurate assessment of Michael Bay’s noisy, nerve-frying account of the widely contested 2012 terrorist attacks that claimed four American lives in Benghazi, Libya. Taking a break from the cultural atrocities of the “Transformers” franchise with this half-successful bid for seriousness, Bay approaches his tinderbox of a subject pretty much the way you’d expect from Hollywood’s most aggressively pro-military director: Largely avoiding the political firestorm in favor of a harrowing minute-by-minute procedural, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is an experiential tour de force but a contextual blur, a shrewdly dumb movie that captures, and perhaps too readily embraces, the extreme confusion of the events as they unfolded on the ground…. There are a few vague nods to the lack of adequate security, preparation and response: the reliance on unarmed Libyan guards who quickly fled their posts, the realization that the Annex’s location isn’t nearly as classified as originally thought, and the grim discovery that the attacks were not spontaneous but premeditated. Still, the movie generally avoids trafficking in the conspiracy theories and partisan agendas that have turned the word “Benghazi” into a conservative battle cry against the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Whether due to lack of time or inclination (or perhaps the realization that the much-disputed Benghazi narrative calls for greater political nuance than “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), Bay seems to have determined that simply dramatizing the details of the attack will be challenge enough.

Josh Dickey, Mashable

The first act of “13 Hours” sets up what a tinder pile the Benghazi situation was from the beginning: With Muammar Gaddafi deposed, American diplomatic and covert CIA operations were underway in two separate compounds about a mile apart. It’s clear to new arrival Jack Silva (Krasinski) that the local security guards are worthless, if not totally duplicitous, that the ambassador’s bodyguards are too green for the job, and that the “tech” (weapons, vehicles, gear) at their disposal are woefully inadequate.

“This is some real dot-gov shit,” Jack laments. And we know it’s only going to get worse.

But the grousing, a persistent theme in 13 Hours, is ever-aimed at faceless bureaucracy, government inefficiency and general chain-of-command clusterfuckery — issues that aren’t unique to Democrats or Republicans. Nonetheless, conservatives are already beating the giddy drum for 13 Hours because, let’s face it, this all happened on Obama’s and Clinton’s watch.

Russ Fischer, The Playlist

Paramount is positioning the military thriller as a “non-political” movie, but don’t be fooled: committing thousands of working hours and millions of dollars to tell the story of an event that dominated political discourse for months is inherently political. Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan edge away from obvious targets — there’s nary a mention of Hilary and only the acronym POTUS to refer once to President Obama — but they heap derision upon the CIA and, through the character mouthpieces, spare few words for a seemingly distant administration that was woefully under-prepared for an attack in Libya. The takeaway is that systemic failure on the part of intelligence agencies, policymakers, and individual officers led to the loss of life in Benghazi.

Jordan Hoffman, Guardian

Don’t tell me this movie isn’t political. Michael Bay’s Benghazi bonanza is timed for release just before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. It’ll hit DVD in time for the general election. There are approximately 400,000 instances in this not-very-subtle screenplay where Fox News viewers are cued to hiss at a phantom Hillary Rodham Clinton, the right wing’s scapegoat for the missteps that kept the Benghazi outpost fighting so long without backup. As these brave men take fire, their inquiries about air support become a clear indictment against a perceived US policy of pussification. While the boondoggle portrayed in “13 Hours” may be based on fact, this is movie is fueled by paranoia and hate. Paranoia about a culture too foreign to grasp except as a bunch of mindless monsters, and hate against a government that won’t let us destroy them.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club

Adapted by novelist Chuck Hogan from the same-titled book by Mitchell Zuckoff, “13 Hours” depicts the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya and a nearby secret CIA base mostly from the point of the view of a six-man team of contractors who worked at the latter. They are all family men, former Navy SEALs and Army Rangers drawn back into conflict zones because they’re broke. At home, Silva is a realtor, “Tonto” (Pablo Schreiber) is an insurance claims adjuster, “Rone” (James Badge Dale) is a nurse, and so on and so forth. In Benghazi, though, they’re ripped and bearded bodyguards who show each other pictures of their kids and then kick ass. 13 Hours is slow to get going and interminable in its final stretch, and its politics are bogus at best; perhaps the point is to put audiences in the mindset of the eye-rolling adrenaline-junkie, secretly hoping that another Toyota Hilux will round the corner, so that one of the contractors can say “Are we expecting friendlies?” into his walkie, and all hell can break loose. (Note: This exchange happens enough times in “13 Hours” to make for a drinking game.)

Kevin P. Sullivan, Entertainment Weekly

The film’s penchant for taking potshots at the CIA feels, in part, like a direct response to “Zero Dark Thirty.” But strictly in terms of what’s on the screen, the mixture of politics and pop filmmaking is a confusing distraction from what is otherwise one of Bay’s better efforts. His action is still geographically confused, but Bay works best with chaos. There’s no shortage of that here. It’s getting from fire fight to fire fight that’s the problem, lending the film a video game-like structure that grows repetitive in the back half…. “13 Hours” is a history lesson as “Call of Duty” DLC expansion pack. There’s a real story of American heroism somewhere in here, but it’s diluted by Bay’s worst tendencies.

Jake Cole, Slant

Despite its incoherent editing and overall dubiousness, “13 Hours” reveals Bay in relatively more mature form than ever. It isn’t, contrary to the assurances of its liberal stars trying to avoid copping to making a conservative film, “apolitical,” but for the most part it aspires to the kind of fatalistic respect of “Saving Private Ryan.” Like that film, it cannot reconcile its tendency toward spectacle with its desire to vent outrage over asking men to die for a principle whose honor is lessened by its codification in military order.

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

While this adaptation superficially goes out of its way to avoid being overtly political, its patriotic tenor is as unmistakable as its sentimentality. Even if an unmentioned Hillary Clinton has nothing specific to worry about in regard to the film’s content, its mere existence will stir up fresh talk about her behavior regarding the incident, and there’s no doubt that Donald Trump fans will eat this up more enthusiastically than anyone…. Anything remotely relating to the ongoing controversy over then-Secretary of State Clinton’s actions, emails and what she knew when remains implicit; when it’s stated that both American diplomatic outposts in anarchic, post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya, including the relevant one in Benghazi, were among the 12 such sites on the worldwide “critical” list, meaning they were inadequately secured and vulnerable to attack, one is nonetheless left to ponder where the buck stops on this sort of thing.

David Edelstein, Vulture

That many of the “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” whoopers couldn’t find Libya on a map didn’t matter. They had a House with the votes to convene yet another committee to grill Clinton before the cameras and find nothing actionable. They had right-wing TV and radio. And now they have a movie. They might be disappointed, insofar as Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” doesn’t mention Clinton and barely alludes to the president, who at one point is said to have been briefed on the unfolding horror. But they have something almost as useful: a ham-handed but grueling and often effective portrait of men forced to fight a near-impossible battle, martyrs to government incompetence and Muslim extremists, men who show bravery and skill and supreme grace under fire.

Will Leitch, New Republic

None of the “secret soldiers” in the film—members of a private security firm, never officially recognized by the government for their role in the firefight—are particularly interesting, but they’re still all solidly played in an inoffensive and likable way. We find ourselves rooting for them, which is enough, because Bay convincingly throws them into Hell. It’s here that Bay’s relative incuriosity about politics works to his advantage: These soldiers-for-hire have no idea where they are, what they’re fighting for, what they’re even doing there in the first place, Bay doesn’t bring in much about the political context of Benghazi — there are a few moments when the failure of the government is obliquely referred to, but no one says the word “Clinton.” Bay’s understanding of the conflict in Libya is a simplistic “us vs. them,” and in a perverse way this works to the film’s benefit. These almost entirely white, huskily bearded men don’t know who these random people are who keep entering the battlefield. Are we supposed to shoot them? Are they here to help? Our heroes can’t tell, and neither can the audience, which is at times frustrating, but also at times vividly terrifying—a nightmare with no logic.

Tim Grierson, Popular Mechanics

On a purely technical level, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” may be director Michael Bay’s most accomplished piece of work. Never before has he so successfully sustained the breakneck momentum and bravura camera movements that have been his forte for more than 20 years. As a piece of war-movie action filmmaking, it’s simply astounding. But movies aren’t just technical feats, they tend to be best when they’re about human beings, and that’s something for which Bay has never shown much ability. “13 Hours” — based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction account of the 2012 attacks on American compounds in Benghazi, Libya — is such a gung-ho piece of U-S-A mythmaking that at some point it transforms into a fascinating, unintentional portrait of macho self-pity. There isn’t a single moment in this two-hour-plus film that isn’t riveting, yet just about every moment will also make you roll your eyes, grit your teeth, or shake your head.

Inkoo Kang, The Wrap

The director has insisted that his film has no political agenda, which isn’t strictly true, because no work of art can ever be free of one. There are a few meatless bones thrown to liberals who might suspect a rah-rah movie about Benghazi of supporting the right, especially in an election year: Several Libyan characters, for example, are shown to be working with Americans (i.e. the mostly-good guys). But the soldiers’ (and hence the film’s) constant scoffing — at agency hierarchy, at government bureaucracy, and particularly at anyone who wants to engage in any kind of foreign policy or intelligence effort that isn’t shooting first and asking questions later — is what ultimately makes “13 Hours” itself worthy of scorn. That myopic stance is arguably more insulting to the memory of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died during the 2012 attack, than the endless Republican exertions to politicize his death or than any other part of this movie’s attempt to turn the circumstances of his demise into entertainment.

Stephen L. Miller, National Review

There may be a great film to be made about the decision-making or lack thereof at the White House and State Department during the embassy attacks, but I’m not holding my breath. Bay’s straightforward portrayal of the attack will be as close as pop culture comes to analyzing the failures of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton that night. Still, the fact that there is any reminder of Benghazi in our popular culture at all is doubtless giving the Clinton campaign major headaches. What we see in 13 Hours is a portrayal of the brave leadership, camaraderie, and sacrifices of the forgotten men on the ground, qualities that were inexplicably absent among their superiors in Washington that night.

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