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January 15, 2016

Movie Review: 13 Hours, A Great Movie and an Enormous, Enormous Problem for Hillary

13 Hours is, doubtless, the best film of Michael Bay's career. It's also an objectively good movie.

Let me get to the politics first. The film is not blatantly political. Do not doubt, however, that it does not have an overt political meaning. It's overt -- just not in-your-face.

The film is filled with the heroes wondering "When is someone coming to help us?"

There are shots of planes lying dormant while Americans are being shot to pieces.

There is an exchange where one soldier (actually, ex-soldiers working for the CIA called G.S.R.'s) says to the other, "I just saw on the news, they're saying this is because of a protest."

The other says: "I didn't see any protest."

And neither does the filmgoer-- there is no protest. There is simply a coordinated attack which starts out of nowhere. It's obvious what this is from the start; there is no "fog of war," at least not about what started this.

Drew pointed out in the podcast a couple of episodes again that there is a bias in the media about what stories they illustrate with pictures and video, and which stories they merely report dryly with words.

Words do not have much impact on people. Pictures and expecially video can move emotional mountains.

Well, until now, the story of Benghazi has been told with the driest, least emotionally-engaging words the Washington Media-Government Cartel could possibly craft.

But no longer. Because for two had a half punishing, occasionally exiting, often anxious hours, 13 Hours doesn't just give you pictures of what happened at Benghazi. It puts you right in the team of six GSR's, fighting wave after wave of Al Ansar and Al Qaeda terrorists.

You know their voices, their nicknames, and, depending on the person (I don't say "character," as these are all real people, though a couple are named by pseudonyms), their backstory, their families, and their personalities.

And as wave after endless wave of attackers comes to them -- one soldier says, quite correctly, "This is like a horror movie" * -- the viewer waits for a rescue that he knows, from the newspapers, just isn't coming.

This movie is a massive, gaping wound in Hillary's campaign, and no one who watches this is going to come away not asking some serious questions about why this "temporary ambassadorial outpost" was permitted with nonexistent security and an impossible perimeter to defend, and why at no point during the 13 long hours of the attack did no one, except a small group of GSRs based in Tripoli, come to the base's aid.

Now on to the review of it, as an actual movie.


The movie begins with Jim from the Office playing a GSR named "Jack Silva" -- this is a pseudonym, as the guy who actually was "Jack Silva" has not come forward officially -- arrives in the chaotic, and frightening, airport in Benghazi, as men carrying heavy arms but wearing no uniforms mill around the place, putting the question immediately: Who exactly are all these armed men, and who, if anyone, is in charge here?

He's picked up by Tyrone "Rone" Woods, who's been at the CIA annex for a while. They are promptly trapped in a street shakedown by terrorists on their way from the airport to the CIA annex; it's a tense scene, and they get out of it using nothing but a bluff about all the resources they have at their command, should they be trifled with.

In fact, they have no resources at their command. They are as alone as the Texans at the Alamo.

The first half hour is my favorite part of the movie, actually, because it gives you what feels like a semi-realistic experience of what it's like to work as an unacknowledged (NOC) CIA gunman in a place overflowing with terrorists and rival gangs. If you like Homeland, you'll like this part.

There's a great sense of paranoia and danger as the guys are always on the alert for anything that looks outside the normal, but in Benghazi, where teenagers are selling rocket launchers on the street, it's kind of hard to say what "outside of normal" would be.

Every time a stranger looks at you and then talks into his cellphone, he could be, and probably is, telling the other people in his cell where you are and what weapons you're carrying.

After a great half hour establishing the basic situation in Benghazi, Chris Stevens arrives, depicted as an idealistic true believer who is not as upset about the poor security at Benghazi as he actually was in real life.

We're also introduced to his two -- 2! -- bodyguards. And that's it for Chris Stevens' security.

Then September 11th comes, and we just wait with the guys. The day goes fine... until around 8:30 at night, when all hell breaks out.

A couple of complaints. First, three of the six soldiers look an awful lot alike, and it's near impossible to tell them apart, particularly during night scenes, particularly during action scenes. Rone, Oz, and Boone are all large-framed, muscular white men with red-brown hair and beards. I can sort of tell Rone from the others -- because he's the main character, along with Jim from The Office -- but only with difficulty, and I could not tell Oz from Boone.

Two other characters, Tig and Tonto, were easier to tell apart.

The men aren't given too much characterization. We know they are devoted family men, and also, they love their families. We know they've got a lot of experience.

But beyond that, we don't know much about them. Tonto stands out as my favorite character, because he seems to have a shitty attitude about most things and so is just sort of fun to be around.

The rest might be painted as a little too perfect to be compelling.

But this is minor point, actually, because once the shooting starts, there really is no characterization in a movie (or in life) besides alive versus dead.

There is a little more confusion, for me, when the Ambassador's residence is attacked. I wasn't sure where the six heroes were, but that might be just because I was overthinking it -- they were at the CIA Annex. But I had it in my head, wrongly, that they were going to hang out with Stevens to provide additional security.

Don't think that. They're at the Annex.

Stevens' compound is under attack for a full hour, I think, with the GSRs demanding permission from "Bob," the almost completely unappealing chief of base,** before they finally tell him they're no longer asking for permission and they're going to save Stevens (and his bodyguards, and Sean Smith) on their own authority.

This is where the film is intentionally confusing, to good effect -- there are armed men on the road everywhere, and roadblocks, and tactical trucks, but no one knows who the hell is on their side, or who is enemy.

"Who are they?" and "Are they with us?" are questions asked a bunch of times as they try to make their way to Stevens.

It's taut.

There's a surreal scene as the GSR's reach the ambo's compound (yeah, ambo, that's the lingo). Dozens of armed fighters are milling about on the premises -- but... the fight is over, and no one's actually shooting at each other. Just all these heavily armed dudes aiming at each other, and walking past each other, no one really knowing whether they should start shooting again or not.

When the shooting starts, it really starts. I recommend seeing this in a theater, especially for the sound -- the loudness of the M2's and explosions is really part of the experience. Most of us will fortunately never be in this experience, but if you want to experience the loud fury and confusion of war, well, this movie does a good job of it.***

The movie really gets to the most straightforward and easily understandable part when the team returns to the CIA Annex -- and awaits the attack they know is coming.

They know damn well the terrorists know they're there. They know the terrorists know they're CIA. And they know the terrorists aren't going to stop with their one victory at the ambassador's base.

What follows is what one troop calls "This goddamn Middle Eastern Alamo," with wave after wave of heavily armed terrorists attacking them, and the guys just hoping their ammo can last until dawn.

Or until help comes.

And help won't be coming.

I really recommend the film, and I recommend it especially in a theater. You're going to want that booming sound. You'll lose a big part of this on TV.

Three and a half stars.

BTW: I should point out, that while the film is anxiety-inducing and sometimes tough, there is a bonus.

When I say they "fight off wave after wave of terrorists" -- you should know I mean "they kill dozens and dozens of terrorists."

In between the grimness, there is occasionally a very satisfying wipe-out of a group of terrorists.


* The Annex abuts on a combination sheep yard and slaughterhouse. The GSRs know the attack, when it comes, will come from here. They call this area, for reasons never explained, "Zombieland." And the waves of indistinct figures coming out of the darkness and smoke do sort of remind one of inexorable masses of zombies.

But these zombies are all armed with AK-47s.

The film does feel like a cross between a war movie and a horror movie.

** Bob does have one cool line, when he's organizing the CIA staff's escape. I won't blow it for you. But it's a great, cool, CIA dude line.

*** One cheesy thing they do twice is give you the POV shot of the soldier, looking down his barrel as he fires. You know, like in a video game.

They do this twice, and the shots are brief (half second or less). I just wonder why they opened themselves up the charge of "making war look like a videogame," which you know the progs will say.

The only time I can remember seeing this done before was in the crap Rock version of Doom -- a movie version of a first-person shooter videogame.

It may or may not be effective, standing on its own, but when you add in the cultural baggage attached to it -- this is what it looks like in a first-person shooter videogame -- I find the shot ill-advised.

I think Bay kind of realized this and so tried to compromise by having the shots go by so fast you barely notice them.

But that's not really a compromise -- you either include the shot and stand behind it, or you exclude it.

I would have excluded it.

Michael Bay already gets a ton of grief from the critics, and this is sort of his first real big "serious" and important movie. I just would not have given people such easy justification to dismiss what is otherwise a pretty unimpeachable piece of work.

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posted by Ace at 08:01 PM

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