Our review of the 2016 action/drama, directed by Michael Bay.
Oh, I’ll be goddamned if I let Michael Bay get ahead of me again. I reviewed every single one of his shitty movies, from Bad Boys to Transformers 3…and I was about to review the rest of ’em when MTV.com had to go and ask him the inevitable, “How do you deal with all them haters?” question.
“They love to hate and I don’t care; let them hate. They’re still going to see the movie! I think it’s good to get a little tension.”
Well, then, with our director’s permission…
It seems Bay’s worked out a little deal with his corporate masters at Paramount: keep cranking out Transformers movies in return for time off in between to make “smaller” pictures about “really real” shit. As long as said shit involve manly men, doing manly things in beautiful environments. Pain & Gain dealt with steroidal criminals in Bay’s fair, adopted city of Miami, Florida. 13 Hours tells the story of CIA contractors in Libya, played here by Malta, which is basically Europe’s Florida. Pain & Gain memorably opened with a voice-over from Ed Harris, telling us that, “Unfortunately, this is a true story.” 13 Hours omits the “unfortunately,” which is itself unfortunate. If any ”true story” deserved to have an “unfortunately” tacked onto it, it’s this one.
First of all, what we call “Libya” didn’t even exist until 1951. Before that, there were at least three regions within its modern borders: Tripolitania, in the northwestern, with its capital, Tripoli. Fezzan in the southwest, with no real capital, since that’s where the desert begins. And Cyrenaica in the east…with its historic capital, Benghazi.
But even those were largely geographic fictions, dreamed up by bureaucrats in by the Ottoman Empire sometime in the 16th century. If there’s one thing that unites all the peoples in what we now call Libya, it’s a long – looong – history of getting invaded by every jumped-up little empire in the neighborhood, from the Phoneticians to the Romans to the Ottomans to the Romans again, in the form of Fascist Italy. Hell, even America took itself turn, from 1801 to ’05. That’s why the Marines all sing about “the shores of Tripoli,” even though our Ever Victorious Navy never really got much past the harbor. A Marine Lieutenant and an Army Captain who liked to call himself “General” (lot of those sprung up about 20 years after the Revolution, when all the real generals had begun to die) led a band of five-hundred mercenaries out of Alexandria, Egypt, across the desert, into the city of Derna…which is just down the road from Benghazi.
Like any Mediterranean port worth a damn, Benghazi was an international trading hub centuries, if not millennia, before the Ottomans it a provincial capital. Because it was an international trading hub and provincial capital, Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi – the Grand Senussi, founder of the Sufi order that bares his name and still holds sway over at least a third of Libya’s population – fled there in 1843, after Wahhabists forced him out of Mecca. Because the Grand Senussi fled there, his grandson, Idris, could become King Idris I in 1951…and be overthrown in 1969 by the military coup…led by one Muammar Gaddafi.
For the next forty years , Gaddafi ruled the country pretty much like the absolute monarch he replaced. Oh, but he didn’t want to be called, “king,” oh no…and even stopped calling himself “prime minister” after the 70s. He liked to style himself the “guide” of his nation: a kindly, avuncular father figure…who just so happened to have a secret police that could make you disappear if you talked too much shit. A country’s worth of oil money can buy a lot of snitchin.
But on the other hand it can also buy you higher education for your entire population. And if you got good grades, you could always get your doctorate at some western university with an international student quota. That would at least get you out of the country… and, more importantly, give you the opportunity to make some friends. Who knows? Maybe friends of your friends will eventually get into government, and they can hook you up with President of the France, and the U.S. Secretary of State. And you could tell those leaders all kinds of tall tales about how great things will be once you overthrow Gaddafi…with a little help from their airforces, of course. This time the revolution will be, not just televised, but updated in real time on the Twitters and everything. And it’ll be democratic and inclusive and freedom and all those other buzzwords everyone likes so much. Instant Democracy: just add ninety days of NATO bombing. It’s a recipe that worked so well in Iraq, we couldn’t help trying it in North Africa. Especially after protests against Gaddafi’s rule broke out in February, 2011…in Benghazi. No matter how far back you go, the city is there, waiting for you, like an arrow pointing toward the future. Seems inevitable in hindsight…but, then again, so does everything.
I mention all of this because I had to look it up my damn self. I certainly didn’t get any of it from this movie, or watching the “news.” All we heard about in the lead up to the bombing was, “Isn’t it wonderful women are finally getting the chance to leave a Middle Eastern country full of hot brass?” Well, Number 1, Libya’s in Africa. Middle east is a little…east…ya know? And Number 2: Yes, I sure Mary Wolstencraft wrote that down in one of her dream diaries somewhere. There was a brief moment of “Ding-Dong, The Dictator’s Dead” after Gaddafi got sodomized by bayonets. But by October, 2011, everyone in my country had gone back to pretending Libya didn’t even exist. The hype train for 2012’s presidential elections was already coaling up, our glorious Fourth Estate already obsessing over its every chug and whistle. So when one of the many, many, many unstable Salafist militias we allied with during the Anti-Gaddafi Uprising, turned around and attacked a diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and the CIA annex just down the road, it really did catch everyone by surprise.
People don’t want to believe that, and I understand why. We live in a world where it’s safer to believe government officials lie to us whenever they open their mouths. Problem is, that skepticism’s selective as hell. Whenever they do open their mouths, at least a quarter of my country will go, “No, seriously, for real – this time: not bullshit.” And another quarter will go, “Bullshit! And fuck all the bullshitting liars who say so.” Leaving the rest of us to work things out for our selves with a box full of half-broken tools.
It’s much easier to go through life believing our government’s run by malicious Manchurian candidates out to steal everybody’s guns before they impose Sharia law and herd us all into FEMA concentration camps. Oh yes, I remember George Dubya’s administration (which considered Gaddafi such a great ally in the War on Terror it sent Condi Rice over to make friends and influence people). Believe me: I know how it goes. Believing all that lets you believe yourself to be the brave, lone warrior for Truth, who might one day meet his Trinity and learn Kung Fu without having to exercise. The ideas that our leaders might just be short-sighted serial fuck-ups, who’ve nevertheless managed to ascend to the highest levels of power anyway…well, that’s just too scary a thought to entertain. Might undermine the fundamental myth of American meritocracy. And we certainly can’t have that! I mean, after all, what is this? Russia?
No, you can still see light through the differences. For one thing, we Americans still have delusions about social mobility. And a seeming obsession with turning every historical tragedy into a movie as quickly as possible, before the events plunge into our society’s Memory Hole. Russian filmmakers are still mining Stalingrad for all its worth, but here we are, just four years after the fact, with what’s universally become known as “The Bengahzi movie.” It’s True Name is 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Based on the book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened At Benghazi. At least someone on this project knew enough to know they should probably change the subtitle and drop all pretense of telling us “what really happened.” The title card doesn’t even have a subtitle on it, which makes me think the whole Secret Soldiers of Benghazi thing was an 11th hour addition, cooked up by the marketing department specifically so that anyone who glanced at the poster in a movie theater hall might know what they were getting.
Either way, I take it as license to treat this like any other story and criticize it as such. Treating this like the documentary (or “docu-drama” to use a completely bastardized phrase) the Right Wing media turned it into would require me to ask way too many awkward questions. Like: Was the CIA using Ambassador Stephens or was he using them? Or both? Stephens was apparently sincere in his desire to stick around and finish the job all the bombing started…so, of course, the film portrays him as an aloof, out of touch twit, surrounded by a compound full of other twits, ineffectual bodyguards, and stupid Yes Men. And what was the CIA even doing in Libya in the first place? The movie handwaves it away with a title card and a throw-away line about how they’re buying up all Qaddafi’s surplus arms in order to keep them off the “Global Black Market.” Riii-iiight. I’m sure all those armaments were summarily destroyed: tossed into one of those molten pits from end of Terminator 2. And not a single blessed one of ’em made it’s way to Syria. Or Iraq. Or Pakistan. Or God knows where else.
But there I go, getting all “political.” In the lead-up to this thing’s release, our director went out of his way to tell everyone that this movie (about CIA contractors in a war zone that our country helped create and then did nothing to help fix) was “not political.” Typical boilerplate PR bullshit for any explicitly political film. And most of my colleagues repeated this line, uncritically, in a flagrant dereliction of duty. Not as bad as when we all let Zero Dark Thirty scoot by without once questioning whether it was naked CIA propaganda…but still…
A good chunk of ya’all have been calling superhero movies “fascist” for almost a decade now, so I’m not surprised you let an actually fascist movie sneak by you with nary a peep. Maybe, instead of sucking air through your teeth every time you see someone in a skin-tight leather outfit with a symbol on their chest, you could’ve tried reading up on the subject of your critiques. Then you might be able to recognize some of the hallmarks. Especially when they’re shaking their moneymakers right in your face.
Susan Sontag would have a stroke if she were still alive enough to watch this shit. I quote now from her piece, Fascinating Fascism, a 1975 review of one of Leni Riefenstahl’s photography books:
“The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, ‘virile’ posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.”
Four Americans died on the night of September 11, 2012, but here, the glamor’s reserved for the deaths of two contractors from Global Response Staff…which, if you didn’t know (it’s not like this movie’s going to tell you) is the CIA’s own little private mercenary company. Oh, yes – they have one. They formed it after 9/11, and they keep using it because, if they just straight-up hired former SEALs and Rangers and Marines off the street, they’d have to pay for everyone’s life insurance. And put everyone’s kids through college. This is the CIA’s brilliant idea for 21st century warfare: let gormless white people wander around the Middle East and North Africa, surrounded by the most conspicuous bodyguards since Usagii Yojimbo. “Eh, just let ’em grow beards and wear sunglasses. That’s enough of a cover, right?” This is why so many in our spy agencies are getting real nostaglic for the Cold War, and would like nothing more than to start a New Cold War with Russia as soon as possible. That way, they can get all their human intel by letting gormless white people wander around Eastern Europe, where they blend right in, just like back in the day.
To the movie’s credit, it does have lead operator Tyrone “Rone” Woods, point out the absurdity of all this early on. But only so his CIA Station Chief can tell him to shut up and do as he’s told. To watch 13 Hours is to watch egomania juxtaposed with impotent servitude. An obsession with failure, and stoically enduring the pain that failure inevitably brings. And a stab in the back by an incompetent civilian government, hampering the efforts of our society’s brave and virtuous Warrior Elite – who could, of course, easily sort all of this shit out if we just let them slaughter everyone indiscriminately, the way we trained them to do. People are massed and turned into things, but since they’re Libyans, we’re not supposed to notice. We’re supposed to be distracted by this grade-A certified, all-American beefcake. So distracted that we fail to notice even our Designated Heroes becoming things. Bearded objects of pathos that half of our political culture dangles before the masses, hoping to insight them to the worst kind of self-destructive stupidity. Like say, for example, paying good money to see this movie.
The first half follows point-of-view character Jack Silva as he arrives in-country, and meets the rest of Our Heroes. Including Rone, his old friend, who’s gotten him back into contract work. They’ll all be obscured by the fog of war later on, so latch on to their one-note character traits while you can, kids. Me, I latched onto Boone, because he and I have the same taste in light afternoon reading. But out of all the sentences Joseph Campbell wrote during life, this movie had to pull one that sounds the most like it came from a self-help book:
“All the heaves, all the hells, all the gods are within you.”
Fair enough…but the problem is, both sides in our current Forever War pray to the same bloodthirsty, Bronze Age god. A god of desert roads and burning cities. Who distained burnt offerings in favor of your favorite child. “Oh, no, wait! Just kidding. LOL! You were actually about to go through with it, weren’t you? Sucker.” In this, He was the first, and remains the greatest, of trolls. I think it’s safe to say He’s either sitting this motherfucker out, or actively encouraging further bloodshed.
Jack also meets with Our…I don’t want to call the civilian CIA workers at his annex “Antagonists.” But they are certainly idiotic fuckwits who’d be completely lost without their virtuous bodyguards. The first half of this movie exists to underline that point and still manages to make room for a car chase. Can’t let the car chase that comes later go un-foreshadowed, now, can we? We’re not dealing with some amateurs here – we’re rockin’ with Mad Mike Bay, bitch.
So Jack is an ex-SEAL with two daughters at home, forced back into that contracting life by economic necessity – he got into real estate after the 2008 crash, as explained in another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-line. There’s a whole other movie in there, about how modern mercenaries are made, and about how certain forces in our society would like to make more of them…but, instead, this is “the Benghazi movie”. Man’s got to have his priorities.
“Well, this place sucks, Jack,” Rone says, summing up Libya in (stereo)typical American fashion. “Not only is it hot as balls, but you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.” Yes – totally unlike America…where summers keep getting colder every year, and all the bad guys wander around with “Villain” printed on their T-shirts in block capitals…oh, Jesus Coptic Christ, that thing’s real? I swear I just made that up. My country is insane, you guys – it went crazy on September 11th, 2001, and it hasn’t gotten any better since. At this point, all the species of crazy have cross-bred. and mutated, to the point where they’re barely recognizable. That’s how a movie like this can pass for “not political” despite containing every talking point in the Right Wing “Benghazi” lexicon.
The first half-hour is all about the mission’s doomed stupidity. We even get a nice tour of the diplomatic compound, just so we can see it before it gets all fucked up, and see how easily fuck-up-able it was from the start. The last hour and a half are devoted to those titular 13. The attacks in this film are depicted as pre-planned, with at least some level of obvious local support. And this is the problem with trying to tell the “true story” of “what really happened” that night. Even basic facts, like that, have become points of political contention. For another example: our hero’s receive the legendary, and probably mythical, “Stand Down” order from their Chief…and this guy…this fuckin’ guy…
I think they call him “Bob” once or twice in dialogue, but for the most part, he’s just “The Chief.” Making him the apotheosis of every weasely dingus who’s ever occupied a position of authority in a Michael Bay canon. From Capt. Joey Pants, in Bad Boys, to two out of three Secretaries of Defense in the Transformers movies. No matter his form, The Chief in a Michael Bay film exists to frustrate and stymie Our Heroes with bullshit technicalities. Because that’s how you generate drama, apparently. One of Our Heroes sum him up thus: “He gets his jollies pushing around Alphas because he can.” But who’s more Alpha – the Alphas who meekly acquiesce to their Beta boss? Or the Beta boss who gets to lord over a whole team of Alphas because he learned how to play The Game while ya’all were wasting your time on Call of Duty…?
Speaking of which, is that…Advanced Warfare…? Yeah! Dude’s playin’ Instinct and everything. But AW didn’t come out until two years after the events this movies dramatizes! A little bit later, Sean Smith – the IT guy who also died with Ambassador Stephens that night – is gonna be playing fuckin’ Ghosts, which was still a year away from dropping. Man, movies are fuckin’ bullshit…
There is one throw-away line about how The Chief “saw some shit back in the day.” But we never really find out when his “day” was, or what “shit” he may or may not have saw. Then again, the same could be said for Our Heroes. Rone, for example, is a native son of my own fair, adopted city, Portland, Oregon – Oregon City High, Class of ’89, baby! A fact I should not have had to look up after watching a movie supposedly dedicated to him. The other glamorized casualty of that night, Glen Dorhity, was – no shit – one of the snipers who helped rescue Captain Phillips. But since that movie version of a horrible, human tragedy was made by Sony, and this is a Paramount picture, your inner Continuity Nerd shouldn’t expect any cross-overs.
That’s the Big Lie about 13 Hours: the clue is in the title. It’s much more interested in the events of that night than it is in any of the men who lived through it. Or didn’t. The deaths of Ambassador Stephens and Sean Smith occur off screen, because…they’re civilians? Or is it because they’re bureaucrats, and the civilian bureaucracy is the true Villain of this piece? Hell, Ansar al-Sharia might as well be fucking zombies for all their personality they’re given. Say what you want about 90s Action Movies: at least back then, your Generic Islamic Terrorist got to make a decent Bad Guy Speech. Shit, if you’re desperate, you could always just copy-paste the one from True Lies. It does still fit. And it’s not like anyone’s paying attention, except for dicks like me.
The very same bureaucracy abandons our heroes for the duration of the night, as its gears grind slowly and ineffectually. Jurisdictional arguments that are panned-past as quickly as possible so we can get back to what really matters. A Predator drone watches everything from on-high – a mighty force transacting with its puppets. That camera’s lidless, unblinking eye is the only support Our Heroes enjoy…until, of course, a fellow GRS contractor takes matters into his own hands, like the manly man he is, forms a team, and rolls through the streets to relieve our heroes around six in the morning on September 12th.
Before that’s where the action comes in. But, of course, it’s Bay-ian action, and by now you should know what to expect. It’ll be shot too close and cut too quick, in a way pretty much designed to annihilate any notion of coherent, cinematic storytelling. A few shots are explicitly designed to mimic the aim-down-sights view you get from any big budget, first-person shooter video game…like, say, Call of Duty. And they’re designed that way for the same: to immerse us, the audience, in the chaos and horror of war. Which might even work, if ten…fifteen…twenty years worth of video games hadn’t completey inured us to that. Hell, half the learning curve in those games involves blocking out everything on your screen except the person your shooting at. The Doom movie got laughed out of theaters for even trying this all the way back in 2005, and rightly so.
But this is Bay we’re dealing with here – a man more interested in machinery than any director not named James Cameron. He even recreates that follow-a-bomb-to-its-launch-to-its-target shot from Pearl Harbor, just to underline where his interests lie. Eventually, one of Our Heroes says, “This isn’t over until it… they’re all dead, or we are.” And I hear the words of Col. Kurtz, from Apocalypse Now: “Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all!” The voice of absolute Control, croaking out Death with its last gasps…
Credit where it’s due: the surreality of war is well handled..until, of course, one of Our Heroes has to spoil the moment by being all like, “It’s so surreal.” Gee, thanks – hadn’t noticed. And here at last, Bay uses the R-rating for it’s god-given purpose. No bullshit necrophilia jokes this time around, oh no: we’re in a war zone, so its nice to see the occasional person chopped in half by a .50 cal. John Krasinski and James Badge Dale are convincing comrades in shit. And Krasinski’s reaction to Badge Dale’s death is authentically heartbreaking. The face Krasinski makes when Badge Dale’s body gets unceremoniously rolled off the roof he was camping on…that’s what I’m talking about. That’s ACTING! And it’s played perfectly! I mean, look at that face. (Actually, with the beard, he looks kinda like Shia Labeouf. Then again, Shia’s going for the Matthew McConaughey look these days, so everything’s out of order.)
As so often happens these days, actors with range are trapped playing characters with no depth. The fact that they are based on real-live humans makes this even more egregious than usual. This – which could’ve been a new Apocalypse Now, for a new generation – squandered all the potential it had through basic, amateur film making fuck-ups. A poor match of artist and subject matter. One of the poorest I’ve seen in quite some time, and I watch a lot of superhero movies.
When the first trailers for this thing hit the internet, a poster on the Libyan website Journal of the Revolution summed things up so well, I want to test this person for psychic powers. “It seems the entire movie boils down the spoiled bickering of Americans as they grapple for power, using the murder of a good man to gain political leverage over one another. Not unlike Libyan politicians, then.” As salamu aleiykum, anonymous shit-poster. You nailed it, sight unseen and from half a world away. It’s almost like we humans have more in common than not, where ever we hail from, and whatever god we pray to. And that all the differences religion and nationalism are meant to nail into our heads are so much superficial bullshit.
But, of course, I could always be part of the globalist conspiracy to give you nightmares with chem trails, and make your teeth visible to spy satellites with fluoride in the water. All I know is…Mike? I was gonna go easy on Pain & Gain. But then I saw this. So…you know…no quarter given. And it’s nice to know that you don’t expect any.