Dallas doesn’t get many world movie premieres, not to mention ones that have potential to change the trajectory of presidential elections. That made last night's world premiere of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay’s slick but effective movie of the siege of Benghazi in 2012, an event to keep an eye on. You, dear readers, may have come here looking for a few different things: a plot synopsis, a recap of the event, a movie review or a spoiler-filled fact check. So here's all of it, in that order.
1) The plot synopsis
In 2011, U.S. and European forces launched airstrikes to end the Gadhafi regime in Libya. The regime fell, but it destabilized the nation and region. Religious, secular and terrorist foes attacked each other and targeted poorly defended U.S. facilities. On September 11, 2012, a well-coordinated army of Islamic militants sacked a consulate, killing the U.S. ambassador and launching an assault against a nearby compound used as an annex by the CIA. The story revolves around a cadre of CIA contract bodyguards who defended the compound and the Americans trapped inside.
2) The world premiere
The first ever public showing, held before thousands packed into a quarter-full AT&T stadium, included musical performances and live interviews. The tone was refreshingly subdued, without an overload of over-the-top patriotism. It would have been easy to lard the presentation with military recruitment videos, tenors belting sappy patriotic tunes and maybe an appearance of a live bald eagle. (I've seen all these things at defense industry conferences and corporate military appreciation events.) Instead, the focus remained on the men who fought and died at Benghazi. "These are the superhero movies we should be talking about," said actor John Krasinski, on stage before the audience, who rewarded the line with applause. Even Chris Cornell, who wrote the movie's theme song, dedicated the two songs he performed to veterans.
The crowd — which included four survivors of the battle depicted on screen, their families, Medal of Honor recipients and (Bay said) the man who shot Osama bin Laden — certainly qualified as pro-military. But that's not to say they were pro-CIA or supporters of the Obama administration's Middle East policies. The biggest applause lines in the movie came at the expense of the CIA, personified by the always-able actor David Costabile (Gale Boetticher in Breaking Bad). His doughy, bureaucratic CIA chief is the living embodiment of foreign policymakers dabbling with forces beyond their control, in over their heads and requiring the warrior class to get them out of it. The biggest claps at the stadium came when one former Navy SEAL turned CIA contractor growls to the CIA chief: "You're not giving orders anymore, you're takin' them. You're in my world now."
You might be wondering, at this point, if the heroes of the movie are really contract employees working for the CIA, mercenaries instead of actual troops. The answer is yes. The "secret soldiers" of the movie's title are former Navy SEALs who quit the military and took positions with the CIA to provide security for nerdy operatives. They are boots on the ground when Washington doesn't want to put boots on the ground. Using them enables clandestine activity without full commitment in nasty places. It also fosters a paramilitary mindset that blurs lines between intelligence agencies and the military. Most germane to the movie, this melding of intel and for-hire special ops enables administration wonks to get in over their heads, as happened in Libya.
3) The movie review
13 Hours is at heart a war movie. The Global War on Terror now is enough of a sub-genre to have its own spectrum. This one falls behind iconic films Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down, but certainly fares better than the flaccid Lone Survivor and embarrassing Act of Valor. Bay refrains from his typical slow-motion frippery, bikini-clad asses and frenetic camera movement. This creates a more solid version of events instead of the attention-deficit fever dreams he often creates. "This is my most real movie," he told the crowd. "It's inspirational that people like this will sacrifice their lives at the drop of a hat."
The action sequences in 13 Hours are probably his best. Bullets have some real physics behind them, punching through bodies with unpredictably messy effects. The city atmosphere is convincingly cloying, paranoid and uncomfortable. Friend, foe and non-interested spectator are indistinguishable on crowded streets. Ambush always seems likely. The feeling of dread permeates Bay's depiction of Benghazi and sets up the foreboding feeling that the CIA mission there is hopelessly in over its head.
The acting is what carries the movie through. There is a moment in every war movie when the bullets stop, when the flash-pot effects cease and the dirty troops talk to each other about what it all means. These lulls are often what drag war movies down, marring otherwise solid films with wretched attempts at humanization or soap box sermons. (Remember Eric Bana's bad drawl when he tells Josh Hartnett that, "It's just war" in the middle of Black Hawk Down? Ugh.)
The central six players perform well and have believable mannerisms and physiques, but the cast is well-supported with scared CIA staff, a Libyan interpreter who somehow rises above comic relief and of course Costabile, who engenders pity as well as frustration. There are several missteps, most noticeably the sudden cessation of the battle when some key characters are killed, but all in all Bay has succeeded. Bloody, fast paced and carrying a message delivered without too much preaching, 13 Hours is the solid war flick he wanted to make.
There is certainly a lot to pick over when it comes to the film's version of the battle. The name Hillary Clinton was never used, nor was the name Barack Obama. But the political nature of the movie means the material will be scrutinized for error. And the screenplay, co-written by the survivors, deviates from the official record.
One crux of the film, played for maximum dramatic impact, occurs when Costabile's CIA station chief, identified only as Bob in the movie, tells the security team at the annex to stand down. The men ignore the order and charge ahead in an armored car. Those who were there told author Mitchell Zuckoff this version, but it remains disputed by the official version of events. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the events gives this drab, bloodless version:
After the Diplomatic Security (DS) agent in the Tactical Operations Center at the Temporary Mission Facility alerted the Annex security team that TMF was under attack at 9:40, the Chief of Base called the [redacted] "who advised that he would immediately deploy a force to provide assistance," according to a September 19, 2012, cable. Two armored vehicles were prepared so the security team could respond from the Annex. Approximately 20-25 minutes after the first call came into the Annex that the Temporary Mission Facility (TMF) was under attack, a security team left the Annex for the Mission compound. In footage taken from the Annex's security cameras, the security team can be observed departing the CIA Annex at 10:03 p.m. Benghazi time. The team drove to the Mission facility and made their way onto the Mission compound in the face of enemy fire, arriving in the vicinity of the compound at approximately 10:10 p.m. Benghazi time. The Committee explored claims that there was a "stand down" order given to the security team at the Annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the Mission compound, the Committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.
The debate over who ordered who to stand down actually obscures the wider mistake on display here: The desire by the administration, including the late ambassador, to have a small footprint on the ground in a place that had been destabilized by regime change. Everything that happened — in the actual events and the movie — is colored by the fact that diplomatic and intelligence personnel operated on the knife’s edge without proper protection.
That lack of preparedness extended to other cities in Libya. "The reduced security forces in Tripoli, Libya and specifically the U.S. Embassy compound were completely inadequate to secure or defend,” Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, site security team member at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, testified to the House Armed Services Committee. "This constraint severely limited my options for support to Benghazi.”
Gibson wanted to rush into action when there were reports of violence, but he knew his hands were tied. There were more than two dozen people in Tripoli whom he couldn’t leave unprotected. If the violence — already known to be premeditated — spread to an undefended capitol, the crisis would be even worse. A pair of airplanes departed from Tripoli during the attacks, containing CIA operatives and contractors who would eventually make it to the scene to help rescue the State Department workers. The second departed at around 6 a.m. “I wanted to be on that plane,” Gibson told Congress, but acknowledges that leaving the facilities in Tripoli unguarded would have have been a “tactical mistake with potentially catastrophic consequences.” He didn’t know that by the time it landed at 8 a.m. it was too late to help. "I was ordered to not get on the Libyan C-130 going to Benghazi,” he testified. "It was a legal and lawful order to which I complied. That order and that decision would not have changed the outcome.” This is true, since the attack that killed the two CIA contractors ended by 4:15 a.m.
The Libyan C-130 is shown arriving in the movie. "Still no Americans," one CIA contractor sneers, seeing it taxiing toward them.
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The last point of fact on display in 13 Hours is the lack of air support given to the besieged defenders. In the movie, a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle is on scene the whole time and is armed with Hellfire missiles. A UAV is known to have been overhead at Benghazi, but it was likely overhead after 11 p.m. One thing seems certain: It didn't carry missiles.There's a robust debate over the details of the drone over Benghazi. (The Washington Post has this nice summation of who thinks what and why.) The movie's version is roughly in line with Fox TV host Sean Hannity's, who holds that the annex and consulate were left unsupported as people in Washington, D.C., watched in real time. Proof of this is lacking.
There is a belief that U.S. warplanes can go anywhere in the world and bomb with impunity. They can, more or less, but only if there is time to prepare. No modern airplane can operate for very long without aerial refueling tankers, and these are in high demand. Ideally, pilots fly into danger knowing that there are plans in place to rescue them if they are shot down. One hallmark of the collapse of order in Libya is the spread of sophisticated shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, making the air over Benghazi a potentially dangerous place. And American pilots need rules of engagement, so that they don't land to read headlines about themselves attacking peaceful protesters or killing civilians.
Gen. Carter Ham, in his testimony to the House committee, pondered whether F-16s from Italy could have flown overhead in a show-of-force — using sonic booms to scare off attackers — or to attack targets. "Would air [power] have made a difference? In my military judgment, I believe the answer is no," he said. "It was a very uncertain situation in an environment which we know we had an unknown surface-to-air threat with the proliferation particularly of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, many of which remain unaccounted for. But mostly it was a lack of understanding of the environment, and hence the need for the Predator [unmanned aerial vehicle] to try to gain an understanding of what was going on."
As is the case with many battles, this one was lost before it began. The CIA operation in post-Gadhafi Libya was high risk and played for high stakes, but the Obama administration bungled it with half measures. By the time the bullets and mortar shells started flying, the grim outcome was already ordained. If they had extra security on the ground, air power on call or less concern with the optics of post-regime change Libya, this event — and this movie — would have ended differently.