Films about modern American military engagements often follow the same model of trying to graft heroic narratives onto stories about failure. Black Hawk Down detailed the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Lone Survivor dramatized an unsuccessful counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. American Sniper was a dark work about the psychological toll of warfare.
The story Michael Bay tackles in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is as notorious by now as it’s grim: the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Libya in which a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died. Like other directors in the genre, Bay’s primary goal is to tell a jingoistic story of bravery against all odds. He’s tried this in the past, notably with Pearl Harbor, a film that documented the devastating Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Navy and somehow tried to turn it into a gung-ho tale of victory. With 13 Hours, he’s grown subtler and more cynical, and has produced a better film (the bar being admittedly low) that’s focused on the minutiae of the Benghazi attack and the CIA contractors who fought off Libyan insurgents in the hours after the initial attacks.
The heroism here is embodied by those contractors, not the government employees who largely serve as nuisances and incompetent distractions. While it’s hard to discern a clear message from the movie outside of “Americans good, terrorists bad,” there’s an edge to Bay’s devoted individualism. Here are the people who knew best what to do, 13 Hours tells its audience. If only they’d been allowed to do it sooner.