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John Krasinski plays Jack Silva in 13 Hours, a story of ill luck that follows poor planning by the United States during an attack on its diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Christian Black

2 out of 4 stars

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Written by
Chuck Hogan
Directed by
Michael Bay
John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber and James Badge Dale

With the obvious exception of the Iraq war, the deadly 2012 assaults on an unsecured U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby Central Intelligence Agency base in Libya must be the largest cock-up in recent American foreign relations. Trust Hollywood to turn the notorious Benghazi into the occasion for much American heroism.

It's a really tall order and in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, director Michael Bay only partly succeeds, creating much genuine drama but also many dodgy moments in his film while unleashing a numbing amount of firepower along the way. The premise here, borrowed from the book of the same title by journalist Mitchell Zuckoff, is that, with no U.S. military help in sight, six admirably professional CIA contractors hired to provide security fought off dozens of gun-toting Islamist militants long enough to permit the belated removal of American personnel.

Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan display lots of admirable professionalism, but they tell their tense story from an exclusively American point of view; among the various competing militia in post-Gadhafi Libya, the U.S. security detail can't tell friend from foe any more than the audience can. As shadowy figures overrun the diplomatic compound and then swarm outside the supposedly clandestine CIA base, the film takes no definitive position as to the cause of the apparently spontaneous attack, but does strongly hint at terrorist provocation and planning.

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If the enemy is a largely unknown force, a movie needs to find some villains closer to home. Here, it's CIA commander "Bob" (David Costabile), who treats the contractors with professional contempt but, when push comes to shove, proves fatally indecisive. Specifically, he is too slow to give them the authority to go to rescue U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (played by Matt Letscher).

(Stevens and a lone staffer caught with him died from smoke inhalation after militants set fire to the diplomatic compound; they were two of four American casualties in the attacks.)

The film begins as contractor Jack Silva (John Krasinski) arrives to team up with his old friend and security veteran, Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), who explains the volatility of the city and introduces him to the patronizing Bob. Add in a few more members of the security detail (Dominic Fumusa and Pablo Schreiber), all full of friendly machismo and gallows humour, and a supercilious CIA spy (Alexia Barlier) too busy working her Libyan contacts to care about her own security, and you have enough wit and tension in the American ranks to make for a gripping premise.

But then the ambassador makes the stupid mistake of visiting from Tripoli and the shooting starts – and goes on and on. You feel for both the poor CIA paper pushers trapped in their insufficiently armed command post and for the macho dudes who have to protect them, as ill luck follows poor planning and mortar fire follows machine-gun bullets.

But you also feel for yourself: If they are suffering the fog of war, you are suffering the fog-of-action movie, a phenomenon that Bay is all too well equipped to create, having previously worked on the Transformers franchise.

He tries to punctuate that fog with the odd moment of levity and sentiment; some of these are suitably amusing or moving, and some of them just feel awkwardly out of place. The director shows particular poor judgment when he turns to the stereotypical figure of the friendly local translator for his comic relief and, worse, asks the powerful Iranian-American actor Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) to do it.

Bay has attempted to carefully characterize and humanize each member of the security force, and Krasinski, Dale and Schreiber are largely successful at creating personable fighters, but the Skype calls home, the pictures of their kids and even their dirty jokes grow painfully sentimental by the film's end. Whoever thought mercenaries could be such big saps?

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Alongside American valour, Bay does show Libyan grief: One of the more intriguing images in the film is that of mothers wandering through the field of corpses outside the CIA compound the day after the attack, looking for their lost sons. It's a deft moment and one can't expect a Hollywood action movie to go much further, but it does expose the problem with making a film set in Benghazi that depicts Libyans mainly as anonymous thugs. U.S. President Barack Obama asked in his State of the Union address this week how America could lead the world without becoming its policeman; 13 Hours is the cultural equivalent of that imperialist conundrum.

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