Watching, on-screen, the 13-hour fight that unfolded in Benghazi the night of 11 to 12 September 2012, one thing I realized was how well I knew the story of it going in.
If you didn’t know the story well, it may have been a little hard to follow the action in some places. But if you do know it, the ability to anticipate enables you to appreciate better how well director Michael Bay’s (Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) movie captures the action.
It also highlights the thing that’s missing from the film narrative: any depiction of what President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might have been doing, during those 13 hours. You just have the leisure you need to think about that.
Bay tells the story from the limited (and obviously most dramatic) perspective of the special operators – former military, contract and government-employee security men – on the ground in Benghazi. They’re the men who had two of their own killed during the fight: Tyrone “Rone” Woods and Glen “Bub” Dougherty. Woods and Dougherty died in the attack, as did Ambassador Chris Stevens and IT specialist Sean Smith, present at the U.S. special mission compound with the ambassador that fateful night.
There is an important virtue in telling the story as a tribute to the fighting men, leaving unspoken or ambiguous any political commentary on why they were left to fight without help. The men themselves deserve the tribute, apart from politics. And it does the rest of us good to see them depicted pretty much as they are. With some of the participants from that night consulting on the movie – which is based on the book 13 Hours by Mitchell Zuckoff – Bay got it basically right, letting the reality of their lives and character make its own case to the viewer.
One small illustration: as the team at the CIA Annex gears up to make its first run to the special mission compound, where the ambassador’s party is under attack, Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), one of the contract security men, shows up for the emerging combat assignment wearing khaki shorts. Ragged on it by his teammate Boon (the sniper, played by David Denham), he gives a quizzical, impassive grunt. Boon utters an equally quizzical, one-word commentary: “Strong.”
Hollywood professionals can tend to overwrite – overemphasize, over-verbalize – such moments, often seeming to think that viewers won’t “get” them if they occur understatedly, as they really would in life. Viewers got this one, though, and I venture to think “got” the other moments of taciturn spareness in the men’s verbal exchanges. There’s nothing like being in a war zone to make trash-talking a nearly effortless, high-art form of brevity and wit.
But, of course, if you know the story, you know that after the team geared up, it had to sit around waiting while the CIA chief at the Annex refused to deploy it. Woods eventually decided to ignore the order to hold in place, and took the team to the special mission compound on his own authority.
The men in the security team saw this first-hand, as they saw that the commander of U.S. Africa Command, up in Germany, was just learning that night that the CIA Annex existed. (This hole in security for the facilities in Benghazi was and remains mind-boggling.) The Benghazi people were in contact with the embassy staff in Tripoli, and we see a couple of brief passages from the latter group’s deliberations as well.
Either that night or later, moreover, the special operators also learned that U.S. military assets in Europe did prepare to deploy on short notice, and were ready to stage and get to the fight within hours of the first distress call, if not within minutes.
So those facts make it into the movie – because the story is told from the perspective of what the men in Benghazi knew. The few, very brief scenes depicting the preparations of the military forces are the hardest for a veteran to sit through. The lump grows in your throat, and you find yourself with your nails digging into your palms, feeling every ticking second of frustration along with the airmen standing on alert in Aviano, not understanding why they’re not being released to get into the fight, already. To at least try.
But nothing about Obama or Clinton is depicted in the movie, beyond a passing statement, at the right time in the narrative, that Obama was about to be briefed in the White House.
And in the end, I think that was the right editorial choice. If Bay had tried to interpolate imagined scenes at Foggy Bottom or in the Oval Office into the screenplay, those fictional leaps would usurp the whole conversation. The movie would just be another verse of the Hollywood morality-play anthem, with big-name actors playing senators and presidential aides, declaiming unbelievable, itch-scratching lines that make you want to throw sharp, rusty, heavy things at the screen.
Bay chose wisely in letting Washington be a silent, uncommunicative non-presence, as it was for the Americans that night in Benghazi. What was happening in Benghazi is evoked well in the movie, and that’s what matters.
The actors did tremendous jobs: besides Pablo Schreiber as “Tanto,” standouts for me were John Krasinski as Jack Da Silva, and Max Martini as Mark “Oz” Geist. But it’s hard to choose among them, and I give Bay props for not weighing his cast down with megastars. He went with acting chops over names, and the credibility factor is enhanced.
The one criticism worth mentioning is also one I never imagined making. I found the Hans Zimmer score to be a little much. It’s a minor point, but you know, I didn’t need the Bugs Bunny bass drum to get my pulse racing during the combat scenes.
But that is, as I say, minor. The movie is gripping and effective. As you sit and watch the story set up, knowing what’s coming, and then you see the action start rolling in faster and more relentlessly; as you see a once-snide group of “Harvard and Yale” graduates at the CIA Annex begin to register that this is real, and it may be their last night on earth; as you see the smoke and flames at the special mission compound and know, with that never-lessening pang of anguish, that it means Chris Stevens and Sean Smith are dead; as you watch State Department security agent Dave Ubben (Demetrius Grosse) tell “Rone” he’s in this fight, his wrenched gut written on his face after losing the “Ambo” he was there to protect; as you watch terrorist weapons find Woods and Dougherty, and a melancholy, indifferent dawn steal over the city as bloodied Americans stagger onto an evacuation plane supplied by the Libyans – you keep thinking one thing, about Obama and Hillary.
You keep thinking: They didn’t care.