Pearl Harbor 2: Libyan boogaloo1/20/2016
Once upon a time, back in the halcyon, pre-9/11 days of 2000, Michael Bay filmed a movie called “Pearl Harbor.” Released in spring of the following year, “Pearl Harbor” was an objectively terrible film, where Bay supremely exposed himself as a one-note action director with a tone-deaf approach to anything of substance or genuine weight. This made him a natural choice to tackle the politically sensitive, emotionally difficult matter of the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Bay has made a point of calling “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” a “non-political” film. In truth, this might be the greatest moment of self-analysis that Bay has ever shown, because in order for “13 Hours” to have made any kind of political statement, it would have to at least try in some way to explore the causes and effects of the Benghazi attacks. Spoiler alert: It does not.
As the words after the colon in the title suggest, “13 Hours” focuses on the story of the six Special Forces-trained American security operators who were stationed at the hidden CIA base in Benghazi during 2012. For most of their time in country, their efforts center around escorting CIA operatives to clandestine meetings with Libyan nationals and conducting arms buys with militant factions in an effort to remove weapons from the hands of Libyan street gangs and militias. Most of it is boring, if dangerous work. On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, however, a swarm of Libyan militants overtake the American diplomatic compound and set the building ablaze, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
This is the event that serves as linchpin for the titular 13 hours, which is how long the six security operatives held off waves of Libyan militia before being rescued. But while Bay plays lip service to the initial attack and Stevens’ death, it is predominately used as window dressing for the Special Ops guys with guns. And here is where Bay shows his truest talent: missing the point.
The thing that makes war movies based on true events work is their tie to a cause — the notion that what these troops you are watching are doing is noble for some reason. Bay gives us all of the action with none of the cause.
Perhaps worse — and this is more an indictment of our culture as a whole than of Bay as an individual — we have reached a point in the “with us or against us” mentality of our soldier worship, where anyone portrayed in a non-combat role is assumed to be in the way. In “13 Hours,” Bay plays this to the hilt. Anyone in the film not holding an assault rifle is portrayed as impotently unhelpful at best and outright cowardly at worst. The six operatives, on the other hand, are infallible. These are not humans we are shown, but literal Supermen in the flesh. Every hunch they have is correct, every decision they make is sound. They speak in America-first quips and have nary a vice or flaw among them. As a reward, their defense of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) compound is held front and center, while the people they are defending and the reason they are there is either played for comedic effect or left off the screen entirely. Even Ambassador Stevens, whom the film eulogizes in the postscript, is played dismissively. Described as a “true believer” in the diplomatic process, we see him campily rah-rah-ing the CIA operatives upon his arrival in country, while one of our six heroes sleeps in the background. Stevens’ death is given two lines of expository dialog before we return to the fighting.
What you are left with is really what Michael Bay does best: a great action film — full of hero shots, 360-degree camera sweeps and parallax — but a meaningless story, historically. CV