13 Hours: complex geopolitical intrigue directed by a guy who loves blowing stuff up? Whee.

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Opens Friday 22
2 out of 5

It’s becoming an annual tradition: every year a pro-military, right-wing-friendly drama opens in January. But while 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a notch better than the disingenuous American Sniper and the unbearable Lone Survivor, it still sucks —  both because of its timing and its implications.

In 2012, on the anniversary of 9/11, a diplomatic American outpost and a CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, were attacked by armed militiae. Both buildings were painfully undermanned (particularly the ambassador’s temporary residence) and the events that ensued cast a shadow that the Obama administration hasn’t been able to shake off.

13 Hours focuses on the six ex-military contractors hired as bodyguards for CIA personnel. As depicted by the film, the operatives are the only competent people for miles, and yet the persnickety civilians treat them as the help, particularly the inflexible middle-management tyrant in charge. Translation: Unless you’ve served your country, you’re not a worthy human.

Predictably, when the shawarma hits the shaver, the hired guns are the only ones who know what to do. But bureaucracy and that pesky chain of command get in the way of the ex-marines and their duty. Glorification of the military and weapon fetishism ensues (direct quote: “When they come, we’ll unleash hell.”).

The movie is not subtle about suggesting the contractors could have saved the ambassador if they’d had authorization from “above”, thus contradicting the filmmakers’ claim 13 Hours is apolitical. The inability of the American government to provide support to an outpost under fire is the most puzzling aspect of the story: as portrayed here, incompetence and lack of political will is directly responsible for deaths.

Any reasonable person would question the reliability of this account (it wasn’t Obama who cut funding for diplomatic security). Then again, reasonable people are not this film’s target audience.

Directed by bombastic auteur Michael Bay, 13 Hours suffers many of the same problems that have plagued the filmmaker’s career: thinly drawn characters, absurd product placement and a pathological inability to illustrate where anything is in relation to anything else on screen. Under the guise of “chaos”, Bay fails miserably to explain where the leads are in relation to friends and foes during combat scenes. Add the director’s trademark choppy editing and you have a film likely to give you a migraine.

Film 101: It’s impossible to build up tension if the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening onscreen.

The acting (B-listers John Krasinski and James Badge Dale star) is tolerable, if one-note. It’s not necessarily the actors’ fault — the classic modern warfare trope, “I miss my family, but I can’t stay away from my brothers,” is all the inner life these characters get. There is no interest in explaining the rebels’ motivations or why the CIA annex boss is such a dick.

The cherry on this cake of clichés is the Good Libyan, a translator who refuses to abandon his American pals. Michael Bay would rather fill the screen with hero shots and flags than provide character development.

If you’re jonesing for a good waiting-for-the-cavalry flick, be on the lookout for the superb British thriller Kilo Two Bravo. There’s no jingoism or blanket vilification of other cultures. Also, your nerves are guaranteed to get shattered.