Why "13 Hours" Respecting The Troops Doesn't Make It Good
Note: This essay was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Filmmaker Michael Bay insists that his new film 13 Hours, which follows the 2012 attack on an American compound in Libya that resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador, is not political. After all, it doesn’t mention Hillary Clinton by name. Nor does it cut away from the noisy, kinetic action of the attack for any sort of behind-the curtain look at bureaucratic inaction. But even if one believes that his film is not explicitly partisan, that doesn’t change the fact that, like arguably all art, it is political.
However, the key political message in 13 Hours has nothing to do with Benghazi itself. Rather, it is the same message we’ve been hearing loud and clear ever since the first plane hit the World Trade Center 15 years ago: Respect the troops. This message is far from objectionable in and of itself—indeed, it’s arguably an ideal embedded in the very foundation of American identity. We’re a country born from revolution, from soldiers fighting and dying for independence. We aren’t just the land of the free: we’re the home of the brave.
It doesn’t take much for respect of past sacrifices to become justification for present atrocities, though, especially in a political environment that treats any criticism of the military as unpatriotic. America’s disillusionment after Vietnam led to such radical, provocative war films as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon, movies that critiqued not only the institutions that led to war but the individuals who fought them. In contrast, while there have been several films post-9/11 that critique the War on Terror, their criticisms are typically aimed at the Washington higher-ups rather than the soldiers on the ground.
It’s not surprising that 13 Hours belongs to the former group, particularly since Bay has long combined his fetishization of big guns and explosions with respect for the soldiers that wield them and frustration with a government that often forgets the human cost (see, for example, The Rock, in which the villain is a disenchanted general seeking compensation for his fallen comrades). In his hands, the Benghazi debacle is a perfect example of both the heroism of macho American Everymen and the ignorance of American elites. Our protagonists are a group of half a dozen ex-military men who have been privately contracted to act as security for an undercover CIA outpost, and the first real villain they encounter is a naive CIA station chief who literally calls them “animals” and praises the Harvard and Yale-educated minds working in intelligence.
It’s easy to sympathize with Bay’s loving portrayal of working-class Americans, yet by “respecting the troops,” he implicitly captures the paradox necessary to justify the War on Terror, or arguably any war at all: if American soldiers are the pinnacle of heroism, their enemies are simultaneously both a terrifying threat that must be stopped at all costs yet no match for our best and brawniest.
Those enemies, in this case, are members of armed Islamist militias, particularly Ansar al-Sharia (ASL), and anyone who isn’t explicitly pro-American. This includes people supposedly sympathetic to our protagonists, such as the 17 February Martyrs Brigade (or “17 Feb” as they’re referred to in 13 Hours), which served as primary security for the American consulate in Benghazi and was called on for support after the attack began, only to largely disappear. One constant theme running throughout 13 Hours is the idea that nobody can be trusted. The War on Terror is not against recognized armies, clad in uniform, but radicalized individuals, people who look like everyday citizens. Whenever the soldiers of the Benghazi compound encounter anybody else, it usually takes a few tense moments to recognize whether they are friends or enemies. One character succinctly puts it: “They’re all bad guys until they’re not.”
As a result of this mentality, the Libyans in 13 Hours are portrayed as either evil or horrendously incompetent. When Bay’s camera doesn’t depict them as faceless targets, sneaking through open fields to attack American soldiers, it shows them running away from the fight, or worse, being so bad at their jobs it risks American lives. One key moment finds GRS member Tanto nearly blown up by two teenagers (presumably members of 17 Feb) who don’t know how to use an RPG—thankfully, one of them loses nothing more than an arm. While other filmmakers might stop to question why such young and inexperienced people are taking up such powerful arms (or perhaps, even, to salute their bravery), Tanto (and Bay, by extension) laughs it off. It’s a moment of black comedy meant to reinforce just how superior these white American contractors are compared to all the brown Middle Easterners around them.
As with most movies of this ilk, American soldiers are presented as lethal, highly trained killing machines with pinpoint accuracy and near-superhuman strength. Injuries that would easily take down most people are just further obstacles to be overcome, more evidence that American soldiers are capital-E exceptional. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of shots of bullets tearing through enemy combatants, literally ripping them to shreds. One man is sliced in half. Another loses an arm. When they get mutilated, they’re out of the fight. But late in the film, one of the GRS members has his hand ripped apart by shrapnel. Viewers are shown repeated, graphic glimpses of it hanging limply by a few threads of skin to a messy stump of twisted bone and muscle. Rather than stay down and wait for help, however, he stands back up and keeps shouting orders before marching himself straight to the infirmary to help the docs patch himself up. Unlike those weakling foreigners, the film seems to argue, when Americans get mutilated, they fight through it.
In this respect, 13 Hours most closely resembles Lone Survivor, in which a small group of Americans are beaten, battered, and bloodied in innumerous ways as they fend off an attack by a much larger force. While 13 Hours isn’t quite as jingoistic in its politics, it still elevates American soldiers to near-mythic proportions, conflating respect with worship. Intentional or not, this may be the most insidious political message of all; after all, with guys like these on your side, why not go to war whenever we can?