This purportedly true account of the 2012 “Battle of Benghazi” opens with American military contractors Jack Silva (John Krasinski: The Wind Rises, Monsters University), who has just arrived in town, and his old buddy Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale: The Walk, Parkland) bluffing their way past a roadblock by armed Libyans. It doesn’t matter what side the Libyans are on, in the chaos that erupted after Gaddafi’s death: the point is that they are Libyans — suspiciously lawless violent folk, that is, who cannot even get their own nation under control — and not Americans. The nature of the bluff involves Rone suggesting to the leader of this band of militants that, as an American, he is willing to die for his country, so he’s happy to wait for the U.S. military air support that is on its way (that’s part of the bluff: no air support is on its way; there is no “air support” for mercenaries) to bomb the hell out of them all, if the Libyan would prefer not to let them pass. (How Rone dying here would constitute “dying for America” is not made clear, but it sure sounds badass, don’t it?) Is the Libyan willing to die for his country? Of course not: only Americans can say that. The Libyan backs down, and the men drive on. America wins the day.
Much of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi will unfold along similiar, and similiarly hypocritical, lines. Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Pain and Gain) has now gone full Leni Riefenstahl, except not for the U.S. government but for the right-wing hate-o-sphere, for the conspiracy theorists, the Obama haters, and the Clinton bashers. An action film that pretends not to be political, 13 Hours sweats with the usual Bayian testosterone but seethes with new condescension and disdain for anyone who isn’t a former elite soldier turned independent mercenary. This is not propagandizing America but rather a tiny slice of America, the slice that recognizes gun-toting anything and for-profit everything as the only “true America.”
So it is that Jack’s introduction to this new job — doing security at a not-supposed-to-be-there CIA base that all the locals know about — is also ours, and we meet people like Bob (David Costabile: Runner Runner, The Bounty Hunter), the head spy here, who rejects proposals to ramp up safety measures with “If you have useful info, put it in a memo.” (Get it? Memos? He’s a paper-pusher, and he likes it, and hence is worthy of derision. And, clearly, his masculinity is somewhat suspect.) And also “There is no real threat here.” (Hahaha, the joke will be on him, won’t it?) We meet Sona (Alexia Barlier), a “French-raised American,” which earns her a special dislike by the film. She’s supposedly a spy but appears to be mostly spoiled-brat whose work seems to consist entirely of meeting people for coffee and dinner (though later, during the battle, she may become useful in helping bandage up a wounded Real Man, and gazing adoringly at her saviors). The contractors on the six-man security team — the others are Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Lords of Dogtown), Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman: The Gift (2015), Men, Women & Children), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa: Focus, Management), and Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini: Fifty Shades of Grey, Sabotage) — joke about how the CIA analysts they are protecting are all from Harvard and Yale, implying that this makes them out of touch with the real world only soldiers and contractors have true knowledge of. None of them know quite what to make of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher: Her, Devil’s Knot), who isn’t a time-killing political-appointee functionary but a “true believer” in helping the struggling nation; does this make him somehow more risible? The guys don’t seem sure. They do know that the “temporary diplomatic outpost” — not an embassy — where Stevens is staying about a mile away from the open-secret CIA compound is not well secured or guarded. It is, in Jack’s words, “some real dot-gov shit.”
The federal gubmint is not to be trusted. Woosy liberals and intellectuals are not to be trusted. Sovereign men with guns who aren’t afraid to use them are what makes America great. They might band together with a few likeminded manly souls, as long as it’s not in a gay way, and yes, the movie makes sure to shoehorn in the assurance that there will be no buggery among this crew. (Intellectualism that is acceptable: quoting from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, as long as it is suggesting that these contractors are not only tortured and tormented heroes but gods.) A few actual soldiers — as in, employed by the federal government and wearing uniforms — might get a chance for some small redemption in the battle that comes, but even that can only be taken so far. Rone and Jack and the other four are the heroes here, initially because they refuse to follow Bob’s orders not to go to Stevens’ rescue when the diplomatic outpost is attacked. Never mind that they don’t manage to do any good there and, in fact, leave the CIA outpost open for attack (which comes next): they went out and blew up some shit and shot some swarthy bearded types who were putting bullets into the Stars and Stripes in slo-motion, the bastards!
“I feel like I’m in a fucking horror movie,” one of the gun-toting Americans says later, when they’re back at the CIA compound and picking off all the Libyans — who are, ahem, obviously not afraid to die for their country — who are running straight at the compound walls apparently heedless of the danger from men armed with machine guns and equipped with night vision. “Zombieland,” the contractors call the space on the other side of the compound walls… and they called it that long before this attack began. At least the Americans the film hates get names and faces; the Libyans are, almost to a one, anonymous hordes. The only Libyan character is the translator working at the CIA outpost, Amahl (Peyman Moaadi: Camp X-Ray)… and he is treated mostly like a pitiable fool.
But what is any of that in the face of helicopter shots of sexy armored SUVs — stolen from Gaddafi, of course — blazing across an exotic Middle Eastern city, and hard manly men chomping out orders like “I need a bag full of money and a flight to Benghazi” and philosophizing that “as long as I’m doing the right thing, God will protect me.” What’s important is that Bay squeezed in as much footage of that Golden Hour that he loves so much, even though the Battle of Benghazi began long after sunset. What matters is that in a world where “you can’t tell good guys from bad guys,” Americans — or, well, certain Americans, at least — are always the good guys.