The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, January 25, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Some three-plus years later, the 2012 Benghazi attack is still a bit of a mystery. Well, sorta. What prompted the attacks? How much was the American government aware of...and still potentially chose to do nothing? It is a messy, nasty business, a horrific incident that claimed four American lives and threatened many more. So a movie adaptation about the attack....we're talking potentially very messy, very uncomfortable. What's the final verdict on 2016's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi?

It's late summer 2012 and Jack Silva (John Krasinki) arrives in Benghazi where he's met by Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale). Rone is the leader of a six-man security team of a classified CIA outpost in Benghazi, meant to provide security for the intelligence-gathering agents and also, the U.S. diplomatic compound about a half-mile away in the city. Jack is the newest member of the team, six men, each with a variety and abundance of military training to their name. They serve six months at a time at the CIA annex, but things are especially tense in Benghazi, a city and a country in Libya still recovering from a civil war a year later. Intelligence reports indicate an American embassy could come under attack somewhere around the world. But on the night of September 11, 2012, over a hundred gunmen attack the diplomatic compound with a U.S. ambassador on-site. A half-mile away, Rone and his security team must decide what to do. Listen to orders and stand down? Or do what they believe is right and head for the under-attack compound?

First things first, the book. This film is based on Mitchell Zuckoff's book of the same title. HIGHLY recommended. Check it out HERE. The movie is not difficult to follow, but the book is able to delve into the people involved and the incident as a whole with a little more detail. An excellent companion piece, book and film working very well together. An excellent read.

My biggest concern going in? Michael Bay is the director. Would it be too much Michael Bay? Come on. You know what I mean, all those little touches you've come to expect out of movies like Armageddon, The Rock, The Transformers movies and many more. How do I put this nicely? Bay is not...subtle. This is a true story that requires at least a little subtlety. Not a ton, but some. So with this action-heavy thriller, it thankfully is not too much. Yeah, there are slow motion action set to a sweeping score, shots of the billowing American flag against a Benghazi backdrop, the vivid colors and the hyper-fast editing. Like anything though, it works better in doses and Bay never overdoes it. Thankfully, '13' is able to tread that fine line right down the middle. 

Nowhere is that more important than tackling the prickly political issues permeating throughout the Benghazi incident. How much was the Obama administration -- especially Hillary Clinton -- aware of? Was the lack of assistance intentional? Following in the book's footsteps, '13' doesn't go down that path. This isn't a film specifically interested in the politics. It is instead solely interested in the men on the ground, the CIA annex security team as they undertake a horrifically dangerous mission, undermanned and outnumbered, navigating a city where anyone and everyone could be an enemy waiting for a chance to pick them off. There's no uniforms, no way to identify those who are with you and those who are against you, until they starting shooting at you. In other words, basically a worst case scenario for these highly-trained, efficient warriors who quite literally have to make a life or death decision when gunmen attack the U.S. diplomatic compound.

These were real men, real soldiers with years of experience. We follow the story almost entirely through their eyes. As they see and figure out what's going on, we see and figure it out with them Along with Krasinki and Dale, look for Pablo Schreiber (frat boy Tanto), David Denman (Tanto's all-business handler of sorts), Dominic Fumusa (Tig) and Max Martini (Oz). One criticism many reviews had was the thin characters, a lack of depth. I disagree. It isn't a character study of these men. We learn little snippets about most of them, a majority of family men with wives and children back home. It just isn't a character movie. It's a specialist-type movie, men in combat, tried and true under the harsh reality of live fire. They come alive in a firefight and struggle to cope at times when the shooting stops. I thought Chuck Hogan's screenplay did a great job showing the camaraderie among these men as they experience a potentially hellish six-month tour at this dangerous, remote outpost. 

Who else to look for? David Costabile as the frustratingly stubborn CIA station chief, Meypan Moaadi as a local who works at the CIA annex and is enlisted as an unlikely translator, Matt Letscher as US ambassador Chris Stevens, Demetrius Grosse and David Giuntoli as his personal bodyguards, and Toby Stephens as Glen 'Bub' Dougherty, the head of the security team 400 miles away in Tripoli.

Where '13' takes off so effortlessly is when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012 begin as the sun is setting on Benghazi. It isn't quiet long as heavily-armed gunmen descend on the diplomatic compound, setting the bullet-riddled night with a shock. Bay films his story on the ground with the security team, always giving a sense that we're right there with them as they navigate the streets, as they explore the compound, and then as they desperately defend their own annex. This is visceral, frightening combat. Death is sudden and quick without warning. What '13' does so well is to build up the tension, both in the daytime hours before the attack but also the quiet moments in the dead of night when the security team gets a moment to regroup. Is help coming? Any help at all? How many gunmen are massing to attack outside the walls? If help is slow arriving, how long can they hold out? Can they? It produces some very moving, emotional moments as the team must face some unpleasant realities.

The violence is quick and startling, graphic but not obscene. It is almost matter of fact without trying too hard to glamorize anything we're seeing. Here it is. Here's what happened. Deal with it. It is only in the final scenes that things got a little too heavy-handed for me in delivering a message that is patriotic, pro-American while sending a message to the government officials and those in charge who watched what was going on in Benghazi and did nothing (apparently. We'll never know the full truth). When it works though, this is a gem, a surprising one at that. The book was excellent, the truths of it all incredibly unsettling, frightening and very inspiring as to what these men went through. Highly recommended. I loved this one.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016): *** 1/2 /****

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