Following the lead of Ridley Scott’s intensely mesmerizing “Black Hawk Down” (2002), which detailed a catastrophic 1993 U.S. military raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” tells the story of a more recent American military disaster in a step by step, hour by hour cinematic reconstruction of a chain of tragic events.
These events, of course, occurred during the night of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya during an attack by a mob of Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound and later a nearby CIA station (the Annex) where the lives of four Americans were lost including the Ambassador to Libya.
Bay and his writer Chuck Hogan take pains not to bring into the film any political agenda, as the very name “Benghazi” has become a heavily loaded catchword during this presidential campaign. Rather they try, and mostly succeed, in rallying their film around a tribute to six hired ex-military operators, assigned to protect the CIA, who fought back against overwhelming odds.
Like “Black Hawk Down,” this is not a film reliant on one or two heroic foreground figures as in most war movies. The actors and their characters are, for the most part, interchangeable, well built men with bodies honed by continual exercise, all sporting beards, weapons and macho confidence, so lots of luck telling them apart.
As close as the movie comes to highlighting one of these security officers is the film’s best known actor, John Krasinski, who plays Jack Silva. His arrival in Benghazi begins the story, a few weeks before the attack, so you meet the other players and assess a dangerous situation through his eyes.
With his arrival to join the contracted Global Response Staff (GRS), the film makes the case the compound and Annex were too lightly guarded without sufficient personnel or security measures to withstand any serious attack by fighters in greater numbers and with better weapons.
In adapting a book by Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex Security Team, Hogan necessarily adds fictional touches. During Jack’s ride from the airport into the port city, driven by his old pal, Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), rather than discussing a recent tense checkpoint stop of American personnel by Islamist militia (as in the book), the movie stages a confrontation to establish how lawless the city truly is.
Also the CIA base chief, named only Bob (David Constabile), is much more of an antagonist. He certainly was a dick in the book as well — his real name was never given — but the writers at least acknowledged he was answering to entirely different priorities in a supposedly secret mission in hostile territory. In the movie version, he’s aggressively antagonistic toward all the security men from the start.
The other men include Max Martini as Mark “Oz” Geist, Pablo Schreiber as Kris “Tonto” Paronto, Dominic Fumusa as John “Tig” Tiegen and David Denman as Dave “Boon” Benton. Everyone is given a few try-to-remember-these-characteristics to tell them apart once the battle begins. Again, lots of luck.
Michael Bay’s style of multiple set-ups and furious rapid cutting works to his advantage in this movie. With the attack underway, the situation immediately turns into bloody chaos. So Bay must render it comprehensible to the audience while keeping clear separate subplots at the two locations (and even briefly a third as a female CIA agent is out that night with a security guard).
The point of view of a falling rocket, that apes his similar and much criticized shot of a falling bomb in “Pearl Harbor,” while no doubt a finger to his critics, unnecessarily pulls you out of the movie for a few moments.
You mostly understand where the Americans are and what their situation is even if what’s happening at any given moment is vague. You do get a very real sense of what the “fog of war” truly means in the ferocious cuts between grim faces, red traces of bullets in the night, pieces of buildings tossed into the air and a fire destroying the compound, which will claim the lives of Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) and Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli).
The focus remains on the six guys, but the emphasis isn’t on dialogue or personalities but rather the logistics of that long night and how crucial their training was in defending themselves and those relying on them.
Once the attacks begin — there is the initial one, where the diplomatic outpost is overrun, and three separate sieges of The Annex — the movie does its best to stick to what happened and when. Only rarely does it cut away to the U.S. embassy in Tripoli 400 miles away or fighters gearing up to come to the rescue in other places.
A drone flying overhead gives you a bird’s eye view of the urban battlefields while the men’s night goggles show how easily the Americans can spot and pick off enemy fighters in the dark.
Other stand outs include Toby Stephens as Glen “Bub” Doherty, a member of the Tripoli-based GRS team that flew to Benghazi after the attack began; French actress Alexia Barlier, the only significant female in the cast, playing a CIA agent who behaves like a prig until the attack and then transforms into a helpful assistant; and Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi (“A Separation”) as a friendly Libyan aide.
Dion Beebe contributes highly saturated colors in day and eerily lit shots at night that come at you in hectoring waves in the Bay-supervised edit by Pietro Scalia and Calvin Wimmer. Lorne Balfe’s score (Hans Zimmer is listed as executive music producer) tells you what you already know — that tensions are rising and time running out — so perhaps less would have been more.
One smart touch is to show the field around the Annex at dawn littered with the fallen enemy as Arab women wail in grief to find bodies of loved ones. This simple, poignant sequence demonstrates the sheer pointlessness of all the deaths that took place that night and the terrible mindlessness of fanaticism.
So ”13 Hours” is impressive and even wearying without being any sort of gung-ho war movie. It’s sobering in its relentless details and single-minded in its purpose. You can read what you want into it, but as a movie it’s neither flag-waving propaganda nor anti-war vitriol.
The movie shows men in combat achieving Hemingway’s “grace under pressure” thanks to their training, skill, experience and reliance on each other. It is a fine tribute to the men of the Benghazi GRS team and a cautionary tale about the U.S. venturing where it’s not wanted.
Opens: January 15, 2016 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: A 3 Arts Entertainment/Bay Films production
Cast: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, Toby Stephens, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, David Denman, David Constabile, David Giuntoli, Demetrius Gross, Alexia Barllier
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Chuck Hogan
Based on the book by: Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex Security Team
Producers: Erwin Stoff, Michael Bay
Executive producers: Scott Gardenhour, Richard Abate, Matthew Cohan
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Music: Lorne Balfe
Executive music producer: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Deborah Lynn Scott
Editors: Pietro Scalia, Calvin Wimmer
R rating, 144 minutes