The Transformers and Bad Boys director gets political in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a harrowing account of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack by Islamic militants on a diplomatic compound in Libya that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
While Hillary is never explicitly mentioned in the film, the shadow of her legacy as secretary of state is all over it—an unspoken finger-pointing that’s ripe for exploiting by savvy GOP enemies as the 2016 election approaches.
It’s all in the telling. The heroes of 13 Hours aren’t the politicians or spies in suits that put us in Libya to begin with, but the highly skilled military contractors—highly paid, highly risk-taking employees of the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS)—who happened to be working as a secret CIA security detail a mile down the road when the shit hit the fan.
They’re combat veterans, old friends, and family men, trained to de-escalate tense standoffs with locals and pick off would-be terrorists with equal ease. In their downtime they pal around reading Joseph Campbell to one another (yes, really) and drop classically macho Bay one-liners, painfully aware of the rising instability in a city where rival militias stock up on grenade launchers on the post-Gaddafi open market and children play in the remains of bombed-out tanks.
“Remnants of the revolution, man,” says squad leader Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), picking up pal Jack Silva (John Krasinski) at the airport to begin his latest stint. Trapped in an armed confrontation with al-Sharia locals, they bluff their way out by threatening retribution from drones they don’t have. Later, a dismayed Rone wryly foreshadows the crux of the deadly Benghazi SNAFU: “We don’t have any fuckin’ support.”
According to 13 Hours, which was adapted by Chuck Hogan from the best-seller co-authored by the surviving soldiers who lived to tell, the seasoned members of the GRS were the only ones whose Spidey senses went off just prior to the 9/11/12 attack.
In real life, a post-Benghazi investigation revealed that Ambassador Stevens had wired Washington in July to request a minimum of 13 security personnel as he traveled to Benghazi, where safe conditions had deteriorated. Clinton deputy Patrick Kennedy reportedly denied the request.
“[Stevens] had regular contact with my aides. He did not raise security with me,” Clinton testified in October’s House Select Committee on Benghazi public hearing. “And the security questions and requests were handled by the security professionals.” Stevens was given just two bodyguards. Neither of them were able to save the ambassador, who died of smoke inhalation along with U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith in the first wave of the Benghazi attacks.
The film doesn’t give the late Stevens much of a chance to protest his own security conditions in Benghazi, portraying the diplomat instead as being so blithely unworried by the growing dangers in the area that he insisted on staying in an ornate 9-acre villa that failed to meet state security standards on multiple counts.
The GRS guys clearly spot huge security risks, but Ambassador Stevens and his private detail wave off danger. Besides, they’re told, the government’s tight diplomatic budget doesn’t allow them to spend on the proper security provisions. One hero shakes his head, not terribly surprised, and drops another zinger: “That’s some real .gov shit.”
Bay and Hogan plant their outrage at the U.S. government throughout the film, serving up Benghazi’s covert CIA compound chief in particular for the audience’s judgment. In reports, he was identified simply as “Bob.” In 13 Hours, the middleman whose reluctance to act swiftly and decisively may have cost lives has the soft face of a middle-aged micromanager. In a thankless role, actor David Costabile’s is the kind of mug you instinctively want to punch.
The film’s cartoonishly written CIA chief insists there’s no threat in Benghazi, and his condescension for the GRS contractors rubs off on his staff of snobby egghead CIA analysts. When heavily armed militias handily storm the under-secured villa where Stevens is staying, scattering the underpaid local gunmen hired to keep hostiles out, everyone is caught woefully undersecured, underprepared, and underarmed.
Bob freezes, waiting for permission from above that will never come. Those trapped in the CIA annex wait for American rescue and air support that will never come. Less than a mile away, the GRS squad is ready to go in minutes, but Bob orders them to stand down even as they and Bob’s bosses hear the heartbreaking pleas coming over the comms: “We are overrun. We need immediate assistance. We need some fucking help.”
Bay’s frenetic action sequences are terrifying and dizzying, even if choppy editing makes the chaos unintelligible. But then, senseless confusion is appropriate enough as the noble gun-toting heroes defy Bob, head out, and shoot their way to the siege, unsure if the swarms of armed locals sidling up to them in the dark are hostile or friendly.
What’s most maddening as the rescue operation unfolds is that we know the U.S. military, the Pentagon, and even POTUS, briefly mentioned, were tracking the situation in Benghazi all along. The closest reinforcements—including Global Response Staff officer Glen “Bub” Doherty—are 400 miles away in Tripoli. Overhead, a Delta Predator drone has been deployed to gather intel.
Eventually the Americans regroup at the CIA annex. They resolutely make their last stand, the one that would end in a devastating dawn mortar assault. Everyone up the bureaucratic chain watching these heroes risk their lives from afar, the film argues, is culpable by omission.
Hillary hasn’t managed to escape the lingering stain of her post-Benghazi insistence that the attack was prompted by the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. Although emails later revealed Clinton knew it was a planned attack claimed by Ansar al-Sharia, she nevertheless insisted in an official statement that “inflammatory material posted on the Internet” was to blame.
It was a line Ambassador Susan Rice spun for days in the media. “… It began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo,” she declared on Face the Nation, “where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video.”
Bay’s characters fill in the gaps, anyway. Between bursts of gunfire and mayhem one character ponders early news reports that local protests incited the violence. Later, when the adrenaline has dissipated and body bags line the tarmac ready to return home, he knows better. Those mortar attacks couldn’t have been orchestrated on the fly, he says. They must have been planned for weeks.
Bay, never one for subtlety, cranks up the sentimentality and the Chris Cornell power ballads in his most patriotic film to date. 13 Hours is a pointedly patriotic reminder of the human cost paid in Benghazi. It’s Jim from The Office, of all people, who hammers home the senseless tragedy of it all. Stuck on a rooftop with the enemy hiding in the ghostly “zombie” fields that surround the supposedly secret CIA annex, he wonders how his children will remember him if he doesn’t make it home: “Will they say he died in a place he didn’t need to be, in a battle he didn’t understand, in a country that meant nothing to him?”
“I would imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together,” an emotional Clinton told members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October. “I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been racking my brain about what more could have been done, or should have been done.”
13 Hours plainly suggests a host of actions Clinton and many others could have taken, before and during Benghazi. As conservatives embrace the film—and will surely use it against her—she should worry not only about the shots it takes at the politicians in charge, but about the final thought that lingers before the credits roll, the last thing American audiences will see before the lights come up: a postscript noting that America’s failure in Libya was succeeded by the rise of ISIS.