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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 21, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Review: Documentary-style film pays tribute to Benghazi soldiers

"13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi"

On Sept. 11, 2012, the anniversary of the 2001 attacks that launched the 21st century into turmoil, radical Islamic militants attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya and killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the United States ambassador to that country. “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” tells the detailed story from the perspective of the six soldiers on the Annex Security Team that defended the U.S. Consulate that day.

The film is based on the book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” written by Mitchell Zuckoff, informed by undisclosed members of the Annex Security Team. Despite knowing the tragic outcome in advance, viewers remain on the edge of their seats throughout the film.

The film does a good job of explaining important details leading up to the siege. Given the film’s political and historical importance, political impartiality is imperative. A central dispute in this true story is whether or not the CIA and U.S. military moved quickly enough to support the team on the ground. While the film does portray the local CIA head at the Annex as slow to react, Michael Bay’s film does not otherwise suggest there was more that could have been done to help those on the ground and displays no political agenda. Instead, this story is clearly intended to be a moving tribute to the brave American soldiers who, despite their losses, clearly triumphed over an armed militia with superior numbers and weaponry.

Given its high intensity, some may view this as an action film, but compared to other films of that genre it has a somewhat slower pace before it unveils the main conflict. Bay’s documentary-like approach to filmmaking sets this movie apart from other action films. In terms of genre, it can’t be pinpointed to one in particular, which in the end, seems to work in its favor.

The film begins with a shot of ex-marine Jack Silva (John Krasinski) on a commercial jet  beginning its descent into Benghazi, Libya. Before landing, he looks around the plane to get his bearings, and the camera focuses on his hand as he grasps and removes his wedding ring. It is discovered later that this is customary among private contract soldiers, like Jack, to avoid giving their enemies an opening to threaten their families. A constant theme throughout the film is that these men are husbands and fathers whose jobs take them far from home. They do it to make a living, but it is also something that they cannot easily walk away from. Their comrades in combat are not only their brothers in arms, but they are also like family.

As Silva exits the plane, the ominous state of the country is on display, following the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He meets with fellow contractor Tyrone Rone Woods (James Badge Dale), and they begin their trip to the Annex. Early on, they encounter a ragtag group of evildoers who block their way and then surround them with assault weapons. The pair manages to escape by holding the leader of the enemy group hostage, threatening his life if the group tries to take them as prisoners.

The lawless state of the country and the risks to Americans become increasingly evident. In every public settingespecially the street marketsit is clear that the “bad guys” are lurking and watching. While in town, the team discovers their potential enemies are preparing to pounce, but the team is able to escape before anything happens. This is, of course, a foreshadowing of the battle to come.

The next day marks the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Tensions hit a high point late in the evening when the compound is attacked by a large group of Islamic militants.

From the Annex, the havoc around the compound lights up the night sky with heavy gun fire. The Annex team is anxious to join the fight, but by the time it arrives, the consulate is ablaze.

The group takes up strategic rooftop positions and battles all night against overwhelmingly larger forces armed with rocket launchers, assault rifles and missiles. Although outnumbered, the team is resilient. The team keeps the Annex safe through the night, while still sustaining heavy losses.

The cinematography in these scenes helps create a sense of the soldier’s viewpoint. At one moment, everything is clear, and with a turn of the head, it’s all a blur. The action shots had the feel of a video game as the viewer looks down the scope of an automatic rifle and sees the bullet land on its target. In some ways, this camera technique could perturb audiences since audience members feel like they are the ones holding the gun, but it works here given the subject. The scenes were chaotic yet calming, which can be credited to Bay’s artistic direction.

No doubt there will be many views of this depiction of the attack on Benghazi, but since the film focuses on the mutual support and bravery of the soldiers, it reminds the audience of the true meaning of the “all for one, and one for all” spirit. Most of all, “13 Hours” serves as a tribute to those men under desperate and near hopeless circumstances who risked their lives in order to protect their country. Despite its small number, the team persevered throughout the ordeal into the night and early morning and prevailed.