In the opening sequence of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” a security contractor bluffs his way out of a sticky situation on the streets of a violent city far, far from America, a city in which warring factions means the man facing him down could be an ally or could, just as easily, put a bullet in his head. “Look up,” the American says, “See the drone?”
There is no drone. But the threat of a drone is enough, barely enough.
This is the recurring theme of the film. A fading superpower trades on its still-existing military power while trying to figure out its purpose.
Whatever movie audiences expected to emerge from Transformers director Michael Bay’s examination of the Benghazi debacle, it probably wasn’t this insightful war story about astonishing hubris on every level except the men who actually carry the guns. In action and depth, this film rivals recent greats such as “Black Hawk Down” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
What Happened in Benghazi
On September 11, 2012, Libyan militia overwhelmed the American diplomatic compound in a small, violent city few in America could place on a map. Over the course of a single, long night, a small contingent of American contractors held off hordes of Libyan attackers. When the smoke cleared, four Americans were dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, and the bodies of Libyan fighters littered the countryside.
The movie tells the story from the vantage point of the American fighters: former military now hired as contractors to protect a Central Intelligence Agency base in Benghazi that, officially, does not exist. Jack (John Krasinski) arrives in Benghazi for his twelfth tour in a war zone. He joins his buddy Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Dale) and strong men Tanto (Pablo Schreiber), Boon (David Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa), and Oz (Max Martini). A mile or so down the road from the secret CIA base, the Benghazi diplomatic compound represents the official face of America.
The CIA is in Libya to monitor and do what it can to prevent the massive arms market that has exploded since the downfall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Powerful military weapons are auctioned to the highest bidder, which does not help the handful of men charged with protecting the base sleep at night.
Chaotic, Middle Eastern Battle Scenes
The action in the film, and most of it is battleground action, is fantastic. Very different in feel than the bombastic “Transformers,” it paces well and makes sense. The battle scenes are tense, dark, smoky, confusing, and realistic. Soldiers act like soldiers. The intense violence and language earn the film an R rating. There is no sexual content.
The battles capture the chaos of the Middle East. In one scene, the Americans travel down a Benghazi street, passing militia with massive guns who may be allies, Libyan teenagers drawn toward gunfire for excitement, Libyan men watching a soccer match as the battle rages, and groups of men holding no visible weapons but the anger in their eyes.
It is impossible to tell who is friendly, indifferent, or enemy. No one wears uniforms, few can be trusted. Some join the fight on the side of the Americans, others run away, some open fire. Bay makes sure in a touching scene that the audience realizes Libyan woman mourn their dead as much as any American.
More than external confusion, though, the film captures the contractors’ internal confusion. Why are they there? Even as they chafe at institutional lethargy, conflicting mission values, and even indifference from the home front, they cannot seem to leave the battle to which they have given so many years of their lives.
They talk about this during lulls in the fighting, marveling at how surreal it is that they should be fighting for their very lives in a place so irrelevant to so many of their countrymen. When they were younger, they say, it was about being part of something bigger. Now they worry that something bigger is gone.
Yet what can be bigger than keeping weapons out of the hands of thugs and terrorists? Bigger than the hope on the face of Libyans who see in Ambassador Stevens a dream of the free, prosperous, secure country they have desired for so long? Bigger than saving American lives?
America No Longer Protects Its Own
They have not left the battle, but their superiors have. As they beg for air support and wait for the support that will never come, a U.S. drone circles overhead, watching, only watching. It streams real-time information to military brass on ships, to command centers at home, even to the terrified agents monitoring from inside the compound.
It shows hundreds of hostiles converging on the few brave men defending the base. It counts them, takes their heat signature, and analyzes their positions. But it never takes action, just watches. It is not clear in the movie whether the drone is even armed, which is exactly the point. It is never intended to aid, only to watch.
The movie does not aim to score obvious political points. The president is referenced once in passing. Hillary Clinton is never mentioned, neither by name nor by office. In some ways, this makes a more powerful indictment, as their inaction and disinterest is reflected in every stand-down order given, every refusal to send a plane, every officer who denies authority to act. People are dying, and the United States government is, simply, MIA. The film leaves it to you to draw conclusions.
In the film, the evacuation of Benghazi grows to symbolize America’s retreat from the world stage. Scarred and scared, shocked at failure despite constant warnings of the dangers facing them, traumatized by the battle they should have seen coming, America leaves Benghazi to its own devices.
The children on the street wave goodbye, those who worked with the Americans return to their own homes, hundreds of thousands join a vigil to honor Ambassador Stevens, but it does not matter. America has gone home.
Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic based in Washington DC. She is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Society and a voting Tomatomer Critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey.