Thursday, January 21, 2016

Film Review: 13 Hours - The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

It helps to understand how much Michael Bay loves the American flag.  Old Glory can be found waving proudly and prominently in most of his movies a symbol of freedom and honor and excellence.

And 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a film whose final shot that Star-Spangled Banner flounder, tattered and tarnished in a pool of debris.

Knowing what the flag means to Bay, I cannot tell you how devastating that was to see.

13 Hours might be Bay's best film.  I have always maintained that he is one of the most gifted movie directors around.  His Achilles heel has always been him working with terrible scripts.  Not so the case with this movie.

The film tells the true story of the attack on our citizens in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.  There has been some dispute regarding the account presented in the movie, but that does not take away from the power of what is on the screen.

After the fall of dictator Col. Gaddafi, his stockpiles of weapons have been ransacked.  The CIA set up a secret base to track the weapons and prevent them from getting into the hands of terrorists.  The CIA base is secured by a handful of ex-military private contractors.  Their leader is Rone (James Badge Dale), a no-nonsense man of action.  His fellow security is made of other rough-and-tumble soldiers: Tanto (Pablo Schreiber),  Boon (David Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa), and Oz (Max Martini).  Rone often bumps heads with Bob (David Costabile), the CIA chief of the secret base who constantly holds Rone and his men back.  The movie begins as Rone picks up Jack (John Krasinski) from the airport as he begins his contract as security.  Things begin to escalate when the American Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) comes to Benghazi around the anniversary of 9/11.  The first act does a great job of setting the board.  When the fuse is lit, the intensity doesn't really let up, even in the down moments.  This modern-day Alamo story is just as harrowing and heartbreaking.

Bay is finally allowed to exercise is talents on a worthy script.  The story is tightly wound so that each passing second carries meaning.  Some of the heavy action sequences are reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, holding the straight line through the chaos.  And as the story progresses and things get more dire, the individual personalities of the soldiers shine.  Our attachment to them makes the stakes all the more awful.  All of the soldiers are married, so we know that whole families will be devastated if even a single one of them is lost.

Bay also captures the wonderfully surreal world where people are sitting in their garages watching soccer a few yards away from mortar explosions.  The juxtaposition of the the violence and the insanity was reminiscent to me of Apocalypse Now.  Added to that was the complete paranoia.  After the fall of Gaddafi, Libya broke off into several rival factions.  The Americans in the movie have no idea if each armed group belongs to militia's allied or opposed to the US.  No one can be trusted and yet they need help or they are lost.

It would have been easy for this movie to devolve into a condemnation of all Libyans.  But the script wisely shows the full range of humanity in the Libyan people.  One man in particular, Amahl (Peyman Moaadi) is not a soldier, but a Libyan translator for the Americans.  He is thrust into this violent nightmare but he shows amazing courage, intelligence, and compassion.  I was so taken with Amahl, because he was someone trained in fighting but stepped up when the moment needed saving.

The preferences are fantastic.  Dale is great as the steady center and the rest of his men have great chemistry with each other for dramatic and comedic effect.  But the real star is Krasinski.  If you are only familiar with is comedic acting from The Office, then you are in for a major surprise.  The part is transformative.  The instensity of emotion that he hits was stunning and kept me glued to the screen.  You feel his bravery for his friends and his desperation live to see his family again.  But this film makes no promise of a happy ending and his fate and the fate of everyone else hangs by a thread throughout.

The biggest drawback would be that some of the supporting cast isn't given enough dimension.  Some characters feel one-note and uninteresting.  But I found this for the most part forgivable as I was drawn in by the rest of the action.

While this movie may be used as a political football, it is actually apolitical.  Something failed these Americans that night.  The movie doesn't point the finger, but you feel the rage as they are left hanging out the dry.  I kept shaking my head in disbelief that we could allow this to happen to our people.  Even if things did not happen exactly as it was shown, the fact that any of our bases would be abandoned like this is heart-breaking.

Thematically, this movie does what all great war movies do: it shows not only the external war, but the war within.  Early on one of Boon quote Joseph Campbell: "All the gods, all the hells, all the heavens are within you."  The soldiers there in Benghazi are not perfect.  They are flawed.  But they remind us that even in our flaws, we are called to heroism.  But no matter how heroic, war is still hell.
I was moved by what I saw on screen.  And it reminded me why brave men and women put themselves into harms way.  It reminded me what they are all fighting to protect:


4 out of 5 stars.

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