Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This unflinching portrayal of the 2012 attacks in Libya is easily director Michael Bay's finest film

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi


Directed by Michael Bay. Starring John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, Alexia Barlier, David Costabile, Peyman Moaadi, Matt Letscher, Toby Stephens, Demetrius Grosse, David Giuntoli, Freddie Stroma, Liisa Evastina, Andrei Claude, Nikovich Sammut, Alan Paris. Written by Chuck Hogan, from the novel by Mitchell Zuckoff.

You probably remember the September 11, 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya that culminated in the deaths of four Americans and footage of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ body being dragged through the streets.

But what you might not know, if you’re only a casual observer of news media, is that there was a “secret” CIA annex a mile away from the compound, located behind a slaughterhouse.

The annex was also attacked in waves throughout the course of the night – and successfully defended by a small private security detail with almost no external support.

13 Hours, which tells the story of the attack and the men who defended the annex, is director Michael Bay’s finest film, and it falls in line with Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor as one of Hollywood’s best depictions of modern warfare – though it’s a couple notches below The Hurt Locker, which tops these ranks.

An opening title scrawl sets up the basics: after the 2011 Civil War in Libya that saw leader Muammar Gaddafi violently deposed, the country was left turmoil. US forces in the country included an Embassy in Tripoli and an undermanned diplomatic compound in Benghazi, around the corner from the base of operations for CIA agents working in the area.  

This CIA annex was secured not by government personnel, but by a six-man team of ex-military private contractors. In the opening scenes of 13 Hours, new recruit Jack Da Silva (played by John Krasinski) is shown the ropes by Rone (James Badge Dale), Tanto (Pablo Schreiber), Boon (David Benton), Tig (Dominic Furiousa), and Oz (Max Martini).

These characters – all based on real-life individuals – don’t have much in the way of personality; they’re the kind of macho action movie stereotypes that would be more at home in Predator. But that suits director Michael Bay’s vision for the film just fine.

Better defined, ironically, are some of the fictional characters: Alexia Barlier’s CIA spy Sona Jillani, who despises the hand-holding from the security detail but comes around when shit hits the fan, and David Costibile’s “Bob”, the CIA head who issues a series of ‘stand down’ orders that may have cost the Ambassador his life.

For all his technical expertise at crafting riveting sequences, Bay struggles mightily when it comes to building story suspense. In 13 Hours, the director relies on our little but our knowledge of the inevitable to generate tension, and ends up with tedious scenes of the protagonists sitting around and drinking beer, waiting for something to happen.

But when that something happens, 13 Hours turns into an assaultive 100-minute action sequence drenched in blood, bullets, oil, and fire. There’s never enough time to question whether this might be the most appropriate way to depict these real-life events when the film dials it up to 11 and ensnares you in its brutal, unflinching grasp.

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In this regard, Bay is peerless. There are some directors who have great spatial awareness and can carefully craft suspense within their action sequences, and others (like Paul Greengrass) who can convey the kinetic power of the action with nothing more than sound and fury. But Bay does both: Hollywood is still trying to top the climactic action sequence in his otherwise deplorable Transformers 3 with every new superhero film that comes out, and they haven’t gotten there.

There are moments here of graphic violence, over-the-top style, of characters screaming “Noooo!” in slo-slo-mo as debris fills the air around them, and moments that might be potentially offensive, such as any scenes involving the attacking forces after they storm the annex like waves of mindless zombies. This might have been a better film if it had shown anything from the other side, but it would have been a very different one. 

But Bay reins things in just enough to convey a sense of sensitivity – the film is careful to note that not all Libyans are the bad guys, even if the characters (and the audience) can’t tell who’s with who – and even though his worst Transformers sequel seemed to attack Obama, he leaves the political bigger-picture out of it here.

The historical accuracy of the film has been questioned, with the CIA chief in charge of the base asserting that he never issued the ‘stand down’ order that might have cost the ambassador his life. However, the real-life members of the security detail have been quick to dispute his allegations.

I’m no fan of Bay, and I don’t think I’ve whole-heartedly recommended any of his previous films, including The Rock or Armageddon, frequently cited as his best. But 13 Hours is a different beast: this is a brutal and undeniably effective gut punch, and Bay tells this story as no other could. 

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