Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi"

If you're looking for politics in "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," then you'll be searching awhile. Told in the vérité style of "Black Hawk Down" and "Lone Survivor," this gripping war drama from director Michael Bay aims only to capture the on-the-ground events of the terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy outpost in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012.

Although that night has proved ample fodder for presidential politics, congressional hearings and more, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan doggedly stick to the account from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, who interviewed the Annex Security Team, which defended the compound and tried (unsuccessfully) to rescue Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The team consisted of CIA employees and ex-military contractors tasked with guarding them. Bay, known for the rambling special effects-heavy "Transformers" films and the like, ditches the fancy trappings and focuses on the rough human camaraderie of soldiers who have left any causes behind and simply fight for each other.

Others will get the glory and the medals, but their reward is "We get to go home," says Jack Silva, a fairly recent arrival to the mission played by John Krasinski. He serves as the audience's eyes and ears.

Bay and Hogan immerse us in the world of the grunts, who live in an untidy compound about a mile down the road from the lush, clean proto-embassy. They share the space with a couple dozen CIA operatives, who are portrayed as eggheads whom the soldiers must guard with jock-like disdain -- former football gods forced to ferry around the math nerds.

"What are all the Jason Bournes doing downstairs?" one snidely asks during a break in the firefight.

At first, the six members of the team are hard to distinguish from each other, all bearded and scary with grim senses of humor. But the cast and crew show us bits of humanity in between the bluster -- the stolen video chats with kids, regretful longing for absent wives, and so on.

James Badge Dale plays the leader, "Rone" Woods, who battles daily with the nebbishy CIA station chief (David Costabile). The spook resents the intrusion these security guys have on their intelligence gathering, even complaining about their grunting exercising outside his window. It's he who refuses to let the elite soldiers rush over to the embassy, dooming Stevens, but he's just following orders from above.

The sprawling battle sequences grab you by the shirt, first the rescue mission to the embassy and then the rigid defense of their own annex. Forced to give up the computer-generated protagonists, Bay proves adept at putting us in the shoes of the flesh-and-blood ones. The scariest moments are not when the bullets are flying, but as the soldiers watch strange men approaching the compound, not knowing if they're friend or foe.

Being a decided member of the nerd class, I might be inclined to disfavor a movie where the beefy soldiers are brazenly glorified while the thinking types are seen as insufferable fools. But "13 Hours" is less about pointing fingers than putting some unheralded guys on pedestals. It's a riveting tale of reaching for heroism amid the chaos.

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