Benghazi, and Michael Bay’s Thirteen Hours

Say the word ‘Benghazi,’ and watch the fur fly. If you’re a conservative, Benghazi is a national disgrace, proof of the ineffectual and feckless foreign policy of Barack Obama and the rank dishonesty of Hillary Clinton. If you’re a liberal, Benghazi is a national tragedy unnecessarily politicized and trivialized by a right wing desperate for some actual scandal they can use to attack this President, and deny the Presidency to the woman who served as his Secretary of State.

My task today is to tell you about a film about Benghazi, directed by, of all people, Michael Bay. A film I expected to loathe, and ended up respecting and being moved by. Yes, that Michael Bay, known for mindless and idiotic action films about transforming robots, weighing in on the most tendentious political scandal of our age. Of course, I thought, the movie was going to suck; that went without saying. I was seeing it so you wouldn’t have to. You’re so very welcome.

I’m a liberal, and a Hillary Clinton supporter. I’m also a film guy. And so when I tell you that Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, for the most part, an honest, powerful and important film, and kind of interestingly revelatory, I suspect that most of you will worry that the old guy’s finally lost it. I knew perfectly well, going in, how I was supposed to react to it. But I make up my own mind. And yes, it’s  true that, to some extent, the film does perpetuate some conservative conspiracy theories. I just don’t think that’s very important.

Some background. September 11, 2012. Benghazi was the second largest city in Libya, a nation which, then, had recently, in 2011, been freed from the brutal and odious rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States supported the rebel faction that deposed Gaddafi, but the country began, almost immediately, to disintegrate, with some factions supporting the West, while others aligned with Isis, or Al Quada, or other Islamist extremists. The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, supported Libyan independence, and the pro-Western factions in the country, and to show that support (and to meet with their leadership), he chose to spend a week in the mission compound in Benghazi, despite oft-expressed security concerns. And it was there that a large group of Libyan terrorists attacked.

In fact, there were two Benghazi attack centers. One was the consulate, where Stevens was in residence. The other was a CIA intelligence annex, tasked with monitoring Gaddafi-era weapons. Security at the consulate was provided by minimal personnel, plus a substantial Libyan militia presence (who turned out to be completely useless). Security at the CIA site, a mile away, was provided by civilian contractors, who reported to the CIA station chief. The contractors tried to save Stevens, but arrived too late. They returned to the CIA compound, followed by bad guys, and were attacked there. Of the four American casualties on that day, two were at the consulate, and two at the CIA facility. Most of the film is about the defense of the CIA compound.

The contractors were all former military Special forces. Those special forces are the heroes of this film. They all have beards, and cool tough guy names like Tig and Boon and Tanto and Oz. And the film’s protagonist, Jack (John Krasinski). They’re all married, all with families, and all with civilian jobs that they hate. And so, they take these security gigs, missing their families, but doing the job of warriors, because no one else will.

When terrorists attack the consulate, the contractors hear of it immediately, and want to drive to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his people. The CIA station chief, Bob, (played by David Costabile, a fine actor who often plays villains), refuses at first to allow it. The film therefore does support one conservative talking point: that the Ambassador could have been saved, but the guys who might have saved him were given a ‘stand-down order.’ An excellent Vox.com article on the film and the event points out that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation reached a different conclusion. (Still, given conflicting accounts, it’s hard to fault a screenwriter who chose to believe the one offering a stronger conflict).

The other major issue in the film has to do with their lack of air support. The contractors call repeatedly for some kind of military air support, which never comes. The reality, as found in both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee’s reports, is that the contractors didn’t receive air support because there weren’t any planes close by who could have provided it. So, in those two instances, the film does exactly what I was expecting it to do; support conservative talking points and conspiracy theories.

Here’s why, to me, none of that matters that much. Benghazi has not just become politicized, it’s also, perhaps inevitably, become trivialized. The current Republican talking points on the ‘scandal’ have to do with unimportant nonsense like who said what on Sunday morning talk shows a few days after the attack. The current Democratic response is a resounding ‘Hillary did nothing wrong!’ What both of these responses ignore, and what the film illustrates, is the complete failure of US foreign policy in Libya, and probably throughout the Middle East.

The US strongly supported one side in what became a Libyan Civil War. As a result, today, as the film both illustrates and points out, Libya is a failed state. It’s a surreal, violent, horror show of a country, and the movie gets that right. We see it over and over, what a dreadful, screwed-up, violent place Libya has become.

There’s one scene early in the film, as three of the contractors are running, weapons ready, towards a firefight. And as they run down a Benghazi street, they pass a bar, where a whole crowd of Libyans are watching a soccer game. This kind of thing happens throughout; the most bizarre juxtapositions of the brutal and the mundane. Another guy has set up a TV set in his backyard, and is watching the same game, while bullets fly past his head. It’s a country where the most horrific violence is so routine that people don’t pay it any heed.

It’s also a country where you really can’t tell the bad guys and good guys apart. There are Libyan characters who act heroically throughout, and of course, Libyan terrorists, led by this one, unnamed, long-haired guy. At one point, a car drives past the compound, and one of the contractors can’t decide whether to open fire or not. The car then turns around, and drives off. Was he lost? Was it reconnaissance? They don’t know, and neither do we, watching the film.

Of course, today, as Libya continues to collapse, as its two main factions and seven sub-factions all vie for power, the main response of the Libyan people has been to flee. There are half a million Libyan refugees in camps across Lebanon and flooding Italy. We think of the refugee crisis as involving Syrians, but it’s every bit as much a Libyan problem.

In American politics today, ‘Benghazi’ is the perfect illustration of what it means to strain for a gnat and swallow a camel. Conservatives shriek about how long it took Obama to call the attack an act of terrorism, while liberals shout just as robustly that Hillary was blameless. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pursued a policy in Libya that could not have failed more catastrophically, with an unbelievable cost in lives lost and families scattered. And the reason conservatives haven’t called them on it, is because they fully supported the essence of that policy, still do, and are upset that Obama didn’t commit to it more fully. Libya has failed, and thousands of people died, and that fact gets ignored by politicians left and right.

But not, as it happens, by Michael Bay. And after the attacks fail, and the contractors head home, we see the main battlefield outside the compound, and the bodies laying there, and we see women, wearing burqas and weeping like their hearts are broken, going from body to body, mourning each one afresh. I honor Michael Bay for including that moment, and lingering on it, just as I honor him for capturing the nightmare landscape that modern Libya has become.

It’s not just a stupid action film. It’s a powerful film about the cost of war, on both sides. And it’s a film about how badly US foreign policy has failed that entire region.

There’s an early scene in the film where Ambassador Stevens talks to the contractors at the CIA compound. And he’s idealistic and inspirational, and we can see that he’s a decent, good, hard working man, who genuinely believes that Libya can transform, under US guidance, to become a safe, free, prosperous nation. And that possibility maybe did exist, briefly. And the contractors aren’t impressed. They’re veterans of Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’ve served multiple tours in ‘nation-building’ missions abroad. And they’ve seen the results. It doesn’t work. And they’re going to end up having to shoot themselves out of the mess that kind of idealism creates.

Benghazi doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton lied and it doesn’t mean that Republicans hyperventilate over trivia. Benghazi is about an instance of horrible violence in a country that no longer exists, where violence has become routine. It’s about well-meaning idealism, left and right, and about the honest, superbly trained grunts who have to make policies work that have no chance of working. In short, it’s a tragedy. Made by Michael Bay. Watch it yourself. Make up your own mind.

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