So last night, my wife and I made it out to see the movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I’ve been asked by numerous people for a review of the film, so here it is. If you’ve read anything in the news about Benghazi, you know how it ends, It’s impossible to tell this story without a few minor spoilers, so while I’ve tried to keep the. to a minimum, if your intent is to go into this movie with an absolutely clean slate, this is one review you might want to skip. You have been warned.
George Orwell has been traditionally (though probably erroneously) attributed with the quotation, “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Whether or not he ever said those words, I’ve never seen them more masterfully portrayed than they are in this film.
Much has been made of the politics in this movie. The events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, are, after all, an inflection point in our history that have impacted – and will continue to impact – the legacies of one, and perhaps two, United States Presidents.
But to see this, first and foremost, as a political film is to miss the point. It is not. The only politics in the theater for this film are those you bring with you.
President Obama is never shown in the film, is never referenced by name, and is heard only once for a few seconds, providing background commentary on the events of the Arab Spring in Libya that led up to the climax covered in this film. Hillary Clinton is never shown, heard, or referenced at all. While there is definitely a political subtext, you will likely interpret it through your own personal preferences and biases, and if you enjoy this sort of film, you will likely do so here regardless of your political bent.
And what, precisely, is “this sort of film?” One thing to note is that this does not carry the usual disclaimer that it is “based on a true story.” Instead, the caveat is that “This is a true story.”
The distinction is important. The film is told from the perspective of a handful of contractors employed by the CIA to provide security for a hidden “Annex” in Benghazi, a couple miles away from the consulate where the attack began. From the perspective of those men, the events in this film are what actually happened.
The best way I can think to describe those events is as a juxtaposition of two other “true-to-life” movies: Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda.
The former comparison is obvious: It is a film about brotherhood-in-arms, camaraderie, and the shared understanding that only happens between people who repeatedly and completely entrust one another with their lives. It is also apropos, in that (as characters in the film state explicitly) one of the political sensitivities around the events in this film was a government desperate to avoid another “Black Hawk Down” scenario, turning Benghazi into another Mogadishu.
The second comparison is less obvious . . . so much so that it took processing through this film with my wife for me to grasp it. She’s the one who initially drew the link for me: This is a film about what it means to be totally and completely abandoned, helpless, on your own, fearing for your life, while at the same time entrusted with protecting – as best you can – the lives of those around you who are counting on you to keep them safe.
In Mogadishu in 1993, while there was the same red tape, the same delays, and the same bureaucratic ass-covering at work, whatever else they knew, the men on the ground knew that their leadership (in particular, Major General William Garrison) would do whatever it took to bring them home (which he in fact did, sacrificing his own career in the process). The men in Benghazi in 2012 had no such assurances. The key emotion portrayed almost nonstop throughout the combat portions of this film is . . . hopelessness. From the moment the shooting starts, there is a sense that none of them are getting out alive. The fact that most of them do is a testament to the genuine heroism of the people on the ground.
The comparison to Rwanda in 1994 is more of a “what if” scenario. The heroics of Paul and Tatiana Rusesabigina, as portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, saved 1,268 of their countrymen and foreign workers at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, fearing for their lives the whole time, and assuming they’d never make it out of the city alive.
One wonders how many more could have been saved if they’d had just a half-dozen highly trained and heavily armed contract personnel protecting them, as the CIA Annex had in Benghazi in 2012.
And this is where my own political biases kick in. As I said earlier, the only politics in this movie are the ones you bring with you. Here are some of mine:
The political dispute surrounding the Benghazi attack is captured in a single, throwaway exchange between two characters that goes something like:
CIA Paramilitary Contractor: They’re saying on the news that this started as some kind of protest about anti-Islamic films?
State Department Security: We didn’t see any protest!
CIA Paramilitary Contractor: Just reporting what’s on the news, bro.
It seems important to note hear that the most full-throated case for that (now known to be non-existent) protest was made by Dr. Susan Rice – currently President Obama’s National Security Advisor, and at the time his ambassador to the United Nations.
Dr. Rice, it must be noted, was on President Clinton’s National Security Council during the events in Rwanda in 1994, and has been quoted repeatedly as urging caution and inaction from the U.S. government in the Rwandan crisis, saying, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”
She claimed to have learned her lesson thereafter, saying “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” And indeed she did, becoming a staunch champion of intervention against the genocidal Sudanese government during that country’s longstanding civil war.
But in Benghazi, with about three dozen American lives at stake, Rice again became an apologist for inaction for the sake of political expediency. Rather than admitting that this was a meticulously-planned terrorist attack (flying in the face of President Obama’s repeated assertions that al Qaeda and its affiliates were “on the run,” and threatening his upcoming reelection bid), Dr. Rice (and her boss, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, President Obama) chose to blame a YouTube video, and chose to hang three dozen Americans out to dry.
And for being on the wrong end of the most important national security crises of the last two Democratic administrations, Dr. Rice received a promotion from UN Ambassador (which, importantly, requires Congressional confirmation) to National Security Advisor (which does not.)
That inaction is another theme that ties these three movies together. In Black Hawk Down, red tape prevents General Garrison from sending everything he’s got to support his men, and he ultimately has to rely on a UN-controlled Pakistani armored convoy to get them out. In Hotel Rwanda, again the inaction of the US and the international community is center stage, as Rusesabigina eventually has to bully a UN commander into providing a way to safety.
In 13 Hours, one central theme is “Where the h**l is the U.S. military??”
We see the CIA personnel desperately calling for support from Tripoli, from Aviano Air Base in Italy, and from anywhere else within flying distance . . . all to no avail. We see shots of F-16s idling on a runway, ready to take off, but with their pilots inside with no orders. We see Glen Doherty – a CIA contractor and former Navy Seal – arguing with his superiors in Tripoli, assembling a hodge-podge quick response team, begging, borrowing, and bribing his way into Libyan air transport from Tripoli to Benghazi, and then battling his way to the Annex to exfiltrate the embattled Americans (giving his life in the process).
We see the shots from the American drone overhead . . . always watching, but never intervening.
We see the assumptions from the men on the ground that the watching drone is armed and will provide minimal air support, and the assumption that heavier support in the form of U.S. gunships is no doubt on the way. The understanding is that this is normal operating procedure. But thanks to the dithering bureaucrats (seen only on camera, when they are seen at all), the normal rules don’t apply here.
Conversely, we see the Libyan armored convoy that shows up to finally relieve the besieged compound, and the Libyan military transport that eventually flies them out.
The juxtaposition is stark, and is duly noted by the men on the ground.
Such juxtaposition is repeatedly and masterfully portrayed throughout this film. Michael Bay is, I think, an underappreciated director. That feels odd to say, given his critical and popular acclaim, but most of his notoriety is his penchant for making lots of things go “boom” in very loud and flashy ways. There’s certainly plenty of that in this film, but it’s the little things that were most noteworthy to me:
We see State Department IT Contractor Sean Smith enjoying “Call of Duty” during his off-hours, just moments before he is thrust into real-world combat for which he is woefully unprepared. A video game, we learn, is nothing compared to the real deal.
We see the U.S. Ambassador, in Benghazi to do a very important job, but protected only by two under-armed and inadequately-trained State Department security personnel in what is described as “the most dangerous city on earth.”
We see the six “rough men” of the CIA contract security team – men who have spent most of their adult lives receiving and doling out violence – spending the brief hours between firefights musing about their loved ones, their children, and the families they just want to get home to see one more time.
We see those same “rough men” with a child in their gunsights . . . a child who is using a cell phone (likely, it is implied, to provide targeting coordinates to the terrorists who are trying to kill them). We see those men unable to shoot a kid, even one who presents an immediate and deadly threat. It is left ambiguous as to whether their forbearance cost two of those men – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – their lives.
We see the CIA officers belittling and grumbling about the security team that hampers their ability to do their job . . . but when things come down hard, we see those same officers – men and women not equipped to handle a full-blown firefight, doing everything they can to support the people who are there to keep them alive. And in the aftermath, one of those who complained the loudest in the beginning sums it all up in the end: “I don’t know how you made it out of there alive, but I know how we did.”
One of the movie’s greatest strengths, I think, is its decision to forego the casting of “A” list actors in any of its roles. That, I think, made it more powerful than the star-studded Black Hawk Down, despite both being equally poignant and important films with similar messages. It made the necessary suspension of disbelief just a little bit easier: Instead of watching Josh Hartnett, Ewen MacGregor, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, and Tom Sizemore, I felt like I was watching Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, Jack Silva, Tonto Paronto, Boon Benton, Tig Tiegen, Oz Geist, Sean Smith, and Chris Stevens.
It felt that much more “real,” and allowed me to fully and completely respect the heroism of the real people involved, rather than their portrayals by actors with famous faces.
And make no mistake, this is first and foremost a movie about heroes . . . and not just the men who gave their lives . . . and not just the men who fought.
The CIA officer who repeatedly complains that her security detail is hampering her ability to do her job, but then spends most of the attack calling everyone she can think of and begging for air support to protect the men of that security detail: She is a hero.
Another CIA officer who bridles at the need for private security guards, and then spends the whole fight talking to his Libyan contacts, trying to figure out if the Americans have any friends left in the city: He is a hero.
The under-trained and under-equipped State Department security guard who panicked, got disoriented, and accidentally placed his colleagues at risk while driving them to safety in a bullet-ridden and burning armored car: He is a hero.
Even the movie’s “villain” . . . the risk-averse CIA station chief who started out the day just wanting to ride out his last assignment and retire – the pseudonymous “Bob” who, according to the movie’s perspective, might have saved the ambassador (while placing his own people and mission at significantly greater risk) if he’d let his security team off their leash sooner: He, too, is a hero.
And of course, the men of who placed themselves between their countrymen and women and scores of heavily-armed terrorists are heroes.
And the four men who gave their lives are heroes:
Tyrone Woods – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Benghazi who spent the entire movie warning of danger, only to be proven entirely right, and to give his life to save the very people who failed to heed his concerns.
Glen Doherty – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Tripoli who spent the entire movie cobbling together a rescue force and somehow managing to get it from Tripoli to Benghazi, only to be killed at the tail-end of the fight before he could see his efforts succeed.
Sean Smith – the State Department IT guy who was sent into the most dangerous place on the planet, unprepared and unequipped for what he would find there, and who went anyway.
And Ambassador Chris Stevens – the dedicated public servant with a vision for a better Libya, who voluntarily put himself in harm’s way in an attempt to make his vision come true, and who gave his life in the process.
Those are the names we know. But for me, the unsung and unappreciated hero of the film was a Libyan translator named Amahl. Amahl regularly places himself in harms way to help the Americans, going with them on dangerous operations despite having no combat skills or training. He’s there solely because he’s the only one fluent in Arabic. When the fighting starts, he’s “volun-told” to travel with the CIA contractors from the Annex to the consulate, because without an Arabic speaker there is no way for them to navigate the dangerous roads controlled by several hostile factions that stand between the two locations. He’s given a helmet, body armor, and a pistol . . . none of which he has the slightest clue how to use, and with the team makes his way to the compound, frequently under a hail of bullets. As they pile into the armored vehicle, one of the CIA contractors upon seeing Amahl in the ill-fitting protective gear, trying to figure out which end of the pistol to hold onto and which end goes “bang,” remarks to his buddy, “Welp . . . he’s not coming back.”
And yet, he does.
After returning to the annex, when the Libyan security forces charged with protecting the compound have all fled in anticipation of the coming attack, Amahl stays. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes he is told to get himself safely home, out of harm’s way, “We’re not going to need a translator any longer.”
“No!” he says, incredulous that the suggestion would even be brought up. “I’m with you guys.”
And he is. Completely.
And in a scene that left me with tears in my eyes, as the survivors are finally evacuated to the airport, they tell Amahl to get in the truck and come with them to safety.
“I’m going home,” he says.
And he does . . . in one of the film’s penultimate shots, we see Amahl shambling off down the street to his house. The American heroes get to retreat, to evacuate, to retire to lives as insurance adjustors with their wives and their children, with the hardest and worst night of their lives behind them, haunting their dreams and their memories.
Amahl, though, walks home past still-burning vehicles on bullet-riddled streets, back to his house in the most dangerous city on earth . . . back into a life with neighbors who, moments before, were trying as hard as they could – fighting and dying – in an attempt to kill him.
It’s an obvious truth, but one that bears repeating: Heroism is not a uniquely American trait.
I said earlier that this is not a film about politics. And yet, for me, it was. As someone whose education and interests delve deeply into the national security realm, I’ve followed news of the story of Benghazi closely ever since it occurred. But this film drove home several things for me – things that seem much clearer now that I’ve seen them from the perspective of those who were there that night.
The Obama Administration’s Difficult Position: First off, I understand now that the administration’s decision to obfuscate the origin of the attack was not entirely political. Yes, as I noted above, politics was indisputably a factor. But in the immediate aftermath there was an urgent need to protect as much information about the CIA’s operations in Benghazi as possible. That played into the CIA station chief’s “stand down” order, as well as into the administration’s “You Tube” misdirection. You see, the movie makes clear that the CIA was there to interdict a very specific, and extremely deadly threat: specifically, the proliferation of “Man Portable Air Defense Systems” (MANPADS). These shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are the sorts of things that literally keep people up at night, because they’re everywhere on the international arms market, and if someone can manage to smuggle one of these things into a Western country, one guy planted at the end of some runway at a major airport could start bringing down civilian airliners at will.
As Vice President Biden might say, that’s a Big F-ing Deal. And so it’s at least understandable why the administration adopted the posture it did for as long as that mission remained secret. What’s inexcusable is the fact that they stuck with that story after it was disproven, for the sake of political expediency and in order to win an election, even to the point of demonizing and discrediting the families of some of the victims.
The Democratic Legacy of Failure: Second, this movie is just the latest chapter in a very long list of democratic inaction in the face of foreign policy crises. Democrats rightly criticize Republicans for often being too quick to act in the national security realm without an adequate plan for doing so. But the Democrats’ failing is the opposite one . . . time and again they would rather take no action at all, than risk taking one that might put their personal positions at risk. Action without regard for the consequences can be dangerous. But inaction without regard for the consequences can be just as dangerous.
Contractor Love: One of the most pleasantly surprising things, for me, was the fact that this movie focused heavily on paramilitary contractors . . . and for once they weren’t the film’s villains! As a government contractor myself, one of the things that irks me about Hollywood is how often they resort to the easy trope that contractors – being mostly American males employed by the for-profit private sector – are easy to demonize, and are thus often painted as the “bad guys.” I know first-hand the value of contractors: we are flexible – easy to hire, fire, and move around – and we often provide skills that can be difficult to find or efficiently allocate among the federal workforce.
In my case, the skills I bring to the table are a combination of solid writing, editing, and communications expertise, combined with a deep knowledge and understanding of national security strategy and policy. In this movie, the skills brought to the table by the film’s featured contractors were highly trained tactical expertise and weapons training unparalleled even by the military’s elite special operators or the security personnel employed by the government. When one of the CIA officers complains about being “handled” by her security contractor, saying that she knows what she’s doing because it’s her fourth (I think it was?) tour in-country, the security contractor protecting her laconically replies, “It’s my twelfth.”
And the film very accurately captures the disparity with which contractors are sometimes viewed by government personnel. I’ve experienced it both ways: I’ve had government clients who viewed me as an integral and valuable part of their team and didn’t care that I drew my paycheck from a private company. I’ve also had clients who thought that my contractor status made me a second class citizen – one whose presence they had to tolerate because they were told to do so, but one who couldn’t possibly be as valuable as a “real” government employee.
This film captures both perspectives . . . sometimes within the same characters, who grow to appreciate the presence and abilities of contract personnel over the course of the movie.
And the movie blows one all-too common misperception about contractors completely apart: Patriotism doesn’t necessarily draw a government paycheck or wear a uniform (or even, in one scene, pants). Despite being employed by a for-profit company, the contractors portrayed in this film were every bit as patriotic and dedicated to serving (and if need be, dying for) their country as were their colleagues serving in the military, the State Department, and the CIA.
I’ve never been called upon to risk my life for my country, but I’ve known contractors who have. And let me assure you, that portrayal is entirely accurate.
Hollywood Sea Change: Fourth, while it showed up only in subtexts, it was refreshing to see a film that was so unabashedly pro-American, and that didn’t tiptoe around political sensitivities. This was the movie about Benghazi that I wasn’t sure it was possible for Hollywood to make. But they did, and they did it right.
When I see a film that touches on politics, I’m used to leaving the theater feeling “lectured at” . . . either the film implicitly criticizes beliefs I hold dear, or implies villainy in people I support, or treats aspects of my worldview as inexcusably misguided and beyond the pale of a reasonable belief system. This is particularly true where the military and national security are concerned. One great example is “Lions for Lambs,” which I loved in spite of its overt and intentional “preachiness” in service to a pacifist worldview with which I mostly disagree.
It was nice to be on the other side for a change, and this seems to be a more and more frequent occurrence in Hollywood. It’s a welcome shift to observe.
Those Emails: Finally, there is one important tie-in to the ongoing scandal around Secretary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private, unsecured email system to receive and store sensitive (including highly-classified) information. At one point, the team assembled by Glen Doherty in Tripoli is joined by two Delta Force special operators, who tell Doherty that their mission is “classified document retrieval and destruction.” That is: two men voluntarily dove headfirst into the most serious firefight faced by American personnel in years outside of an actual war zone, for the sole purpose of protecting with their lives some of the same information Hillary Clinton was cavalierly storing on her private, unsecured email server. To my mind, that fact alone – and her casual disregard for it – should forever disqualify her from the role of Commander in Chief.
And speaking of Hillary Clinton . . .
To me, this felt like the biggest absence of the film – and it was an intentional one. This was the story of the men on the ground, and while we know in retrospect the names and faces of the people making the decisions that impacted their lives that night (among them President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, and AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham), the men and women in harm’s way at the time did not. Turning this into an explicitly political film would have detracted from their story, and I’m glad Bay chose not to do so.
But in my own mind, I can’t help but add in the roles Bay left vacant.
This election season has been a tough one for me. I’ve long been a “political junkie,” and have been looking forward to this election for a long time, due to the incredible stable of political talent on the Republican side of the aisle. At present, of the candidates still in the race, my personal preference lies with Marco Rubio. But more significantly than that I’ve been drastically disappointed by the role Donald Trump has played in this election. I think he’s a horrible person, makes a cartoonish candidate, and would be a dangerous President.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
I’ve long taken the position that if it came down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would likely vote third party or cast no vote for President at all. I haven’t seen this matchup as a choice between the “lesser of two evils,” but simply a choice between “two evils.”
After seeing this movie, I’m not so sure.
First off, we know that the people on the ground – to include Ambassador Stevens, who was handpicked for the job by Clinton according to emails recovered from her server – warned that security in Benghazi was sorely lacking, and that the threat level was incredibly high. We know that his concerns went unheeded by State Department leadership, and were retroactively (and speciously) blamed on Republicans in Congress to score political points.
Second, we know that Clinton and others knew almost immediately that this was a premeditated assault that took a great deal of advanced planning. Their immediate concerns with protecting the CIA’s presence and mission in-country are, as I noted, perfectly understandable. But we know (again from Clinton’s emails) that much of their concern was with protecting her political future. To that end, she persists in lying about the nature of the attack to this day.
Finally, we know Clinton doesn’t take seriously any criticism of her role in the attack response or her handling of emails regarding that attack or any other sensitive information in her possession as Secretary of State. She stated as much explicitly on ABC News just a few days ago, when she told host George Stephanopoulos, “This [the latest revelations about highly classified information in her unsecured emails] is very much like Benghazi . . . Republicans are going to continue to use it, beat up on me. I understand that. That’s the way they are.”
She’s right. The two scandals are very much alike, but not at all in the way she thinks.
Earlier, I called the events of Benghazi in September 2012 an “inflection point in our history.” And so they are. And for me, this movie served as a personal inflection point as well. For the first time, this film had me wondering whether a President Donald Trump might just be a slightly less worrisome proposition for the security and future of our country than a President Hillary Clinton. Trump expresses a lot of ideas I find disturbing to the point of being dangerous. But Clinton has actually held the reins of power herself, and has already proven herself a danger to the security of this country. We now know from her emails that her intent was to use her involvement in Libya’s transition away from Qaddaffi as one of the “crown jewels” in a resume carefully calculated to commend her for the Presidency. Obviously, that didn’t work out so well, and the events of September 2012 are just one of many strands in her effort to paper over a disaster that is, at least in some part, of her making.
I’m as yet unresolved as to whether or not I could actually bring myself to vote for Donald Trump in order to keep Clinton away from the Oval Office . . . and I still have hope that I may never have to make that choice . . . but for the first time I am seriously considering it.
As I said, though, that’s my own political filters and biases talking. As far as the movie itself, do yourself a favor and go see it. And as my wife says, “bring Kleenex.” Regardless of the way you feel about this nation’s national security and intelligence apparatus (military, civilian, and contractor alike), you will come away with a newfound respect and regard for those rough men who stand, at this very moment, ready to do violence on your behalf.