Michael (Transformers) Bay has now made two feature films about real-life military attacks on US sovereign territory - in 2001 Pearl Harbor, which was enough to have you rooting for the Japs, and now 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Happily, the latter does not have much in common with the former, save for a reprise of what evidently Mr Bay regards as his signature - a rocket falling from the skies to its target, but shot from the rocket's point of view. If you object that a rocket is an inanimate object and can't have a point of view, well, it's all comparative: in Pearl Harbor, the rocket was a lot less inanimate than Ben Affleck. Here the director has a grittier and hairier cast, and makes a good-faith if not wholly successful effort to dial back the prettifying devices of blockbuster film-making.
As for the point of view, the rocket has one. But Bay doesn't. This is a visceral, sensory, pulverizing, you-are-there slab of action - all twitchy cameras, sudden edits, jerky cross-cuts - in which the context of the fireballs all around is left for another day. The director describes 13 Hours as "my most real movie", but it doesn't have to be that real to be more real than the official version. Film-making and storytelling have been part of the Benghazi fiasco since the evening of September 11th 2012, when the US Government decided to tell its own story about a film-maker whose all but unseen video had, they insisted, led to the death of a US ambassador. In the Hillary Clinton version, four Americans died at the hands of (as I put it at the time) "a spontaneous class-action movie review". Three days later, when the President, the Secretary of State and the US Ambassador to the United Nations were all still lying to the American people about what happened and why, my characterization of that night holds up better than the Government's:
As Secretary Clinton and General Dempsey well know, the film has even less to do with anything than did the Danish cartoons or the schoolteacher's teddy bear or any of the other innumerable grievances of Islam. The 400-strong assault force in Benghazi showed up with RPGs and mortars: That's not a spontaneous movie protest; that's an act of war, and better planned and executed than the dying superpower's response to it. Secretary Clinton and General Dempsey are, to put it mildly, misleading the American people when they suggest otherwise.
One can understand why they might do this, given the fiasco in Libya. The men who organized this attack knew the ambassador would be at the consulate in Benghazi rather than at the embassy in Tripoli. How did that happen? They knew when he had been moved from the consulate to a "safe house," and switched their attentions accordingly. How did that happen? The United States government lost track of its ambassador for ten hours. How did that happen? Perhaps, when they've investigated Mitt Romney's press release for another three or four weeks, the court eunuchs of the American media might like to look into some of these fascinating questions, instead of leaving the only interesting reporting on an American story to the foreign press.
In the end, the court eunuchs chose to continue fanning Sultan Barack. Three years later, based on a book by five of the survivors, Bay's film belatedly provides answers to some of the basic questions the media never asked. It's not a political film at all: Hillary is never mentioned by name, and for the whole 13 hours the Government of the United States - indeed, in a more basic sense, the entire global hyperpower - is an unseen character confined to the end of a telephone that no one ever picks up. There are occasional glimpses of nearby assets - a US air base across the Med in Italy - but in this western the cavalry never come. Three years ago we were told that they couldn't have got there "in time" - so, in Hillary's words, what difference would it have made? But as I wrote:
It's easy, afterwards, to say that nothing would have made any difference. But, at the time Deputy Chief Hicks was calling 9-1-1 and getting executive-branch voicemail, nobody in Washington knew how long it would last. A terrorist attack isn't like a soccer game, over in 90 minutes. If it is a sport, it's more like a tennis match: Whether it's all over in three sets or goes to five depends on how hard the other guy pushes back. The government of the United States took the extremely strange decision to lose in straight sets. Not only did they not deploy out-of-area assets, they ordered even those in Libya to stand down.
That's the story as Bay tells it: For two-plus hours, you feel only the absence of the global superpower - as, indeed, many beleaguered Americans and American allies around the planet have felt these last years. The background is sketched efficiently enough. John Krasinski, the nice bloke from the US version of "The Office", lands in Libya hirsute and bulked up. He's playing Jack Silva, a private security contractor for whom this is just another gig in just another Krappistan. He's met at the terminal by his old Navy Seal buddy Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) and even on the drive back from the airport it's clear that Benghazi is a town where the Libyan government's writ doesn't run and turning left instead of right can have serious consequences for your life expectancy. When they run into trouble at an ad-hoc militia checkpoint, Woods has a well-rehearsed line to hand, pointing to the sky and telling the dimestore jihadist that every aspect of the encounter is currently being watched by the all-seeing drone. As we'll discover, the world's first drone superpower sees everything ...but doesn't do anything.
Woods and Silva work for GRS - the Global Response Staff - whose job is to provide security for the CIA operatives in the city. There are six of them, with monosyllabic nicknames - Rone, Tig, Oz, Boon - and a trait apiece: One of them is a bookish type partial to Joseph Campbell, which provides Bay with some voiceovered philosophical musings in the final moments. Otherwise, this is where the director descends to his traditional caricatures: in contrast to the hairy muscular tattooed GRS guys, the CIA types are clean-cut pocket-pen pansy-assed snooty desk-jockeys with Ivy League Master's in Nation-building Studies, all under the command of a Head of Station jobsworth called "Bob" (David Costabile) on his last posting before retirement. Because there are no girls in this story, one of the CIA agents is female, a thankless role well-played by Alexia Barlier.
The pointyheads don't want these dumb lummoxes causing any trouble. When the CIA occasionally ventures out from its crusader fort to meet with local bigwigs, Jack goes along as protection, posing as Mlle Barlier's hubby, but sneeringly instructed not to say a word. In the course of the film, Mlle Barlier's character comes to see that, when the chips are down, you need these hard men. Whereas the dweebiest of the desk-jockeys, on being instructed to grab a gun and head to the roof, responds, "He's joking, right?"
This is the CIA we're talking about, remember. They can't really be that effete and disconnected, can they? They surely can't have that little sense of their vulnerability - of their precarious toehold on a disintegrating landscape. Next door to their compound itinerant herders graze sheep and doe-eyed boys skim stones, but there seems to be a method in their comings-and-goings, as if it's the intelligence agency that's under surveillance. A mile away, inside the diplomatic compound, things are even more surreal. There's a pool, and the lobby looks like the Benghazi Hyatt, but the State Department security are rank amateurs and their local guards are unarmed and the foreigners lack the language skills ever to be entirely sure about the natives they've hired. As one American marvels, after watching his militia comrade on his cellphone, the so-called good guys mysteriously have the bad guys on speed-dial.
The "friendlies" fade into the shadows, the "hostiles" metastasize: As the night unfolds, you get the sense that everyone - the goatherds, the grease-monkeys watching TV soccer, their shrouded womenfolk - knows what's going on. Except the Americans. The CIA are tourists in the heart of darkness. The world over the wall has a lazy sensuality, confident that, when the infidels with the guns and the money depart, it will be as if they were never there.
And so on September 11th US Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), described as a "true believer" in the new Libya, arrives for a private meeting with the mayor - at which half the town shows up. Instead of being upset by the security breach, "Bob" is more irked at a GRS guy dozing off during Stevens' happy-sappy remarks. When it all goes pear-shaped back at the compound, Bay is unsparing in showing Stevens' panic and fear at the disintegration of his illusions: He and Sean Smith are hastily shuffled into a "safe room", which, of course, thanks to the attention to detail of the money-no-object State Department, is entirely unsafe. Unable to force their way in, the invading army simply lights up the adjoining room, and the smoke under the door does the rest.
The decision to let their ambassador die appears to have been taken early on. Was it just "Bob" back at the CIA annex rushing into the yard and ordering GRS to stand down? Or did it come from higher up? Half-a-dozen brave men plus a goofy Libyan interpreter decide that, unlike the CIA, they're going to do what's right, and off they set.
The GRS guys are well-cast by Bay. The one misstep is Toby Stephens, playing Glen Doherty. The son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, Toby is best known as the baddie in Die Another Day, a very overripe performance even by Bond-villain standards. He enters the picture back at the embassy in Tripoli, when the diplomats are fretting that they have no assets in country. Oh yes you do, says Stephens, stepping forward and fixing his gimlet eye on the camera: "I need a bagful of money and a flight to Benghazi." His face is too strong and his presence too actorly and the line too portentous, and just for a moment the entire enterprise trembles on the brink of Robert Stack in Airplane!
Glen Doherty was a singularly brave man. He was the guy who didn't shrug "What difference does it make?" And so he made a difference: He got his flight, and he landed in Benghazi in the early hours, and made it to the roof of the compound to save American lives, and sacrifice his own. While the commander-in-chief went off to party in Vegas, and the Secretary of State put her phone on voicemail, and the UN Ambassador hit the TV circuit to peddle the official lie, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods chose to act in defiance of the government that abandoned them. Bay does not eschew the conventions of the genre, but Lorne Balfe's hitherto percussive score finds an appropriate dignity for these final scenes.
We all know how the story ends, as perhaps they did, too, in the last of those 13 hours. It was a thankless task, a charge of the Light Brigade necessitated by the absence of all the heavy power. But they did it, and their sacrifice deserves to be honored. There are other stories to tell about Benghazi - of self-serving duplicity by shameless hollow nothings unfit for public office - but Michael Bay has chosen to focus on heroism and sacrifice by men whom too many Americans have forgotten. I hope his film makes a difference.