13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi begins with a brief history lesson. Text at the beginning of the movie explains that following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Benghazi fell into chaos as local militia raided the dictator’s armories. The situation got so bad that most states pulled their diplomatic presence from the city. But the US maintained a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, one that doubled as a CIA operations base. A team of ex-military private contractors were on the base serving as security for the CIA. The movie kicks off with Jack Silva (John Krasinski) arriving in Benghazi to join the team, hooking up with an old army buddy.
If you’ve followed the news at all, then you know what happens next. The movie dramatizes the attack on the outpost and the nearby temporary embassy that housed the US ambassador to Libya. But before the movie actually gets to that event, it has some points to make. First, the CIA was apparently clueless about the situation on the ground, getting into constant arguments with the security detail about the danger on the streets and the threat of attack. Second, the local militia allied with the US was an unreliable force at best, and at some points were in direct contact with the enemy.
Along with those points, the film establishes that these private contractors are also all family men, with wives and children waiting for them back home. Jack Silva has two daughters, and he doesn’t know why he keeps going away to dangerous territory instead of just being home with them. The film wants to make it clear at all points that these are all very good men, perhaps the only in the whole region who have any sense at all.
This is the very limited worldview from which 13 Hours operates. It cuts through all the complexities of the region and the situation at that point in time with the moral clarity that these ex-soldiers, now being paid handsomely as private contractors, were the only people who were in the right. Everybody else in this situation was apparently incompetent, stupid, or downright evil. This is problematic, of course. This was a complex situation, and the film distills it all into nearly 150 minutes of jingoistic, pro-military claptrap. There is no room for nuance, no time for understanding what it is that is motivating the enemy. There is just the sound of righteous gunfire as these unimpeachable heroes do their grim work.
The film works best as empty spectacle. The firefights are amazing, the camera fully capturing the chaos of the moment. It gets a little hard to follow sometimes, but for the most part, the movie is able to tell a clear story within all the violence. It just struggles to tell stories when it isn’t just about killing people. The characters are thinly drawn, the soldiers all the same variation of gruff and righteous. The CIA agents are all effete and clueless. And the Libyans are faceless and interchangeable. There is no depth here, no real humanity to cling to.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi applies simple blockbuster thinking to a difficult, real life situations. It casts heroes and villains, lionizing a select few while demonizing the rest. It’s likely that this film has all the best intentions, but it still emerges as somewhat odious in its presentation of this one particular version of the truth. The truth about Benghazi has yet to really be determined, but this film just charges through with its jingoistic fervor. Though those firefights are worth seeing, the context behind them gets pretty uncomfortable.