13 Hours (2016)

*. There’s a moment in 13 Hours when one of the band of bearded brothers defending the not-so-secret compound says that he feels like he’s in a horror movie. I nodded my head. You can trace various strands of cultural influence feeding into this movie, from the defence of the Alamo to the films of Howard Hawks and John Carpenter to Black Hawk Down to the Call of Duty video games, but the one I felt to be the strongest was the zombie siege film. One of the areas outside the compound is even called “zombieland,” and the shadowy figures seem to be rising out of the grave like an army of the undead.
*. Politics of this sort had arisen in the zombie genre before. In the remake of Dawn of the Dead a newsreel at the beginning seems to suggest a parallel between Muslims at prayer and the coming zombie apocalypse. And in World War Z we have Jerusalm besieged by zombie hordes that we don’t have to use too much imagination to identify. So this was already part of the zombie mythology, and seeing it in this movie just completes the circle.
*. So even on that level 13 Hours is a political film. But of course it was much more than that when it came out. “Benghazi” was shorthand for government bungling, leading to various investigations and reports that dogged the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t know if it was meant as a dog-whistle, but it would be naive to think it didn’t play that way to some audiences. Four years earlier the release of Zero Dark Thirty had been pushed back because it was felt to contain an implied criticism of President Obama, who was then running for re-election, something everyone involved with this film must have been aware of.
*. Director Michael Bay said he didn’t think it was political at all but was merely an objective record of what really happened. This can, however, only be an aspiration for any dramatic filmmaker, no matter what the subject. When dealing with this material it was impossible. What “really happened” is probably unrecoverable. The events seem to have been chaotic, there were elements of secrecy involved, and when it comes to military history you can always expect a lot of embellishment in the retelling (the proverbial “war stories”). Real life doesn’t usually sort out into heroes and villains this neatly, and the CIA station chief has apparently complained about the accuracy of his portrayal here, as one could well imagine he would no matter the facts of the case.
*. Then there is Mark Kermode’s take: “when Michael Bay says it’s not political what he means is that it’s not really about anything at all, it’s just about the action sequences.” For Kermode, and many other reviewers, Bay is only interested in the mechanics of blowing things up and making movies that are “loud and noisy and incoherent.”
*. There’s some truth to this. 13 Hours is an action film and most of the attempts made at characterization consist of the clichéd calls home to the loving family (now being done via Skype or Facetime). And when I say clichéd, I really mean it. If not for the geniality of the hirsute and buff John Krasinski, who is surprisingly good in the part, I think I would have groaned through all of these uplinks.
*. Still, I’d say there’s a little more to this than Bay’s usual fare. As soon as I type those words, however, I am forced to concede that Bay’s usual fare consists of robots fighting each other. So . . . I don’t know.
*. I don’t even know how realistic the action sequences are. I’m sure Bay was going for verisimilitude in painstakingly rebuilding the compound and getting all sorts of expert advice on the tactics. But then there were some silly shots thrown in. Apparently a bus never actually blew up, and I had a hard time believing the guy taking himself out with an RPG. I also wasn’t too sure about the team’s tactical movements. Would they really stay bunched together that much when they went into action? And why weren’t they getting into a prone position more often? They spend a lot of time standing up throughout the firefights. I don’t remember much from my own basic training but this struck me as not all that realistic.
*. Beyond all this, I found the film jingostic in an imperialistic way, down to the inclusion of a Gunga Din character and the reiterated point about how every American life is sacred. The military men are sweaty and muscled and capable while the bureaucrats and civilians are incompetent or cowardly wimps. This is all standard fare, but I didn’t find any of it offensive so much as boring.
*. Judged just as an action film though I think it works pretty well. Despite taking so much time to give us the layout I was still confused as to what was going on at various times but even that might have been intentional.
*. Somewhat surprisingly, it did not do well at the box office. Because of the politics? Did people want something a little more complicated, less propagandistic? I doubt it. American Sniper had been a big hit and it was almost as jingoistic. I think the politics did alienate a lot of people though, and what with the election going on it was probably seen as being a bit too much.

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