Credit: Paramount

Thomas Atkinson

In 2011, the First Libyan Civil War ended with the deposition of the leader-turned-fugitive Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who was found by rebels and executed in the street. By 2012, nearly every foreign embassy had left the country. The United States, however, still had a CIA base in the city of Benghazi, as well as a diplomatic outpost a mile away and an embassy in Tripoli. 

On the night of September 11, 2012, and into the early morning of the next day, militants in the Ansar al-Sharia group attacked the outpost and the CIA base. It is not known how many Libyans died in the attack, but four Americans were killed: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (as of writing, the last American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty); foreign service technician Sean Smith; and CIA hired guns Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. The Obama administration, especially then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would be blamed for it. Then-senator from Arizona, Republican John McCain, characterised the administration’s response as ‘either incompetence or a massive cover-up’.

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In narrative cinema, a tension has existed since its inception between the illusion of reality and an audience’s conscious reiteration that such a practice is illusory. That we must remind ourselves as audiences that films are illusory proves that the impulse to take the illusion at its word is stronger than our desire to break away from it. That is understandable: cinema is the closest any medium can get to simulating the experience of reality, being as it is composed of image, sound and movement all together. The world’s increasing consumption of visual ideas through consumer technology on social media has made the persuasive power of digital potent, and ripe for the creation of a more perfect propaganda. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) is an innovation in that regard. 

A dramatization of the 2012 Islamic militant attack on a diplomatic compound and a CIA outpost in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of two US contractors, a technician, and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens, the avatar for this retelling is John Krasinski’s Jack Silva. One of the CIA’s contractors, at the movie’s opening, he is returning to Benghazi after several years spent in the United States with his family. Krasinski’s casting, at the time a break from his image as a goofy everyman cultivated in the American iteration of The Office, is an inspired choice. It leads the audience into hostile territory. As mortifyingly dench as Krasinski became for the role, the barrier between the audience’s world and Benghazi is softer because of his presence. He’s a family man who’s not afraid to cry when he finds out his wife is having another baby; like us, he’s also untethered to distant bureaucracies. Silva is a gun for hire, an ordinary hero whose presence in Benghazi, ostensibly, is just as easy to imagine as any of ours. (Krasinski has become an action star in his own right – back on television, playing Jack Ryan for Amazon – in a gross misunderstanding of how excellent his role in this specific film is.)

Even though Krasinski is the most ordinary of Benghazi’s secret soldiers, he is not atypical of their manner. The grunts are affectionate and brotherly towards each other, as well as to those they have waiting for them back home. Not only that – some of them are well-read. One of the soldiers, Boon (David Denman), whose dialogue is repeated in reverential voiceover for the film’s climax, quotes Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth to the soldiers’ commander Rone (James Badge Dale). ‘All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.’ Rone repeats these words minutes before biting the dust. The grunts FaceTime their families before the attack, getting messages from the front-line back home. There can surely be no video message home that is more potent than 13 Hours– the horror of war, seen from the ground, in reconstructed reality. 

Bay’s uses digital video for both vérité and image-making purposes. As much as he favours handheld the action sequences, he still can’t resist fashioning transparently constructed, traditional shots out of more conventional cinematic language. And although digital video can smear colour and take away all its pop, Bay actually heightens it. The interiors are saturated with oranges and yellows, and the exteriors pulsate with blue and green lens flares from street lights. 

Nevertheless, it breaks the illusion of traditional Hollywood cinema in its verisimilitude while at the same time reinforcing  that illusion. Bay’s digital, handheld imagery is so consummate that the more traditional formal moments are wrapped in a veneer of reality. You are not just experiencing a retelling of the Benghazi attack – you are re-experiencing the attack itself.

Perfect propaganda. 

The precedent for this is established in the opening moments, where Bay makes the startling choice to use actual cell phone footage of Gaddafi’s execution. At the outset, the real world has already blended with Bay’s retelling of it. And yet, he still uses the opportunity to turn this real image into a constructed one by superimposing Gaddafi’s execution with footage of him sitting, proudly, in full military regalia at an army event months – maybe years – before: the proud leader’s image tarnished with pictures of his naked demise.

In keeping with this endless proliferation of images, Bay turns surveillance into a story-telling tool – shots taken by drones (as in harmless helicopters one might get for Christmas) sit alongside facsimile footage taken by ‘drones’ (as in the vehicles used for bombing civilians). ‘You see the drone?’ Rone asks an unfriendly Libyan that tries to stop his car in the street. ‘No? Well, it sees you.’ Bay turns surveillance into a theme of the movie, if only briefly. Later, before the attack, Tanto takes pictures of insurgents in the street for intel purposes. ‘Yeah, smile motherfuckers,’ he whispers to himself.

But what is the purpose of such propagandising? It would be foolish to assume Bay’s intentions are rooted in praxis, though the exact timing of the film’s release – mere weeks before the first 2016 Democratic primary would set former Secretary of State and warmonger Hillary Clinton on the path to eat Donald Trump’s dust in the presidential election that year – can only cause us to speculate. Nevertheless, Bay makes no efforts to hide the ideology at play in 13 Hours, complex though it may be. 

Chuck Hogan’s script is alive with virulence for the elected officials who run the show. The grunts instead believe in a more nebulous idea of US power. Pencil-pushing is contemptible, but raw force is not. After surviving another wave of attackers before the film’s final battle, Oz tells undercover CIA officer Sona that ‘a low fly-by [of F-15s] would put fear of God and the United States’ into the Libyan attackers. Such poetry – and yet that fly-by, and the fear of God and the United States, never comes. It’s the grunts – untethered to bureaucracy and specific organisations – against the world. 

The language of cinema responds in kind to this rabid individualism. Across his filmography, Bay doesn’t miss the chance for cinematography that lionises the heroes of the story. In the tour around the diplomatic compound in the film’s first act, Tanto warns the security detail that the compound would be easy to breach in an attack, while Bay looks up at him in an extreme low-angle shot. Literally towering over weaker beings, his intelligent analysis is framed as a matter of physical stature. Later, when the compound is first attacked, Jack wanders out onto his terrace to display, in a magnificent medium shot, a torso fitting of a Greek god. 

These are extreme examples, but extremism is Bay’s point. Hyper-masculinity is part and parcel of Bay’s heroic imagery, which is nothing new in American cinema. Still, its presence in a film as innovative in its relationship to image-making as this is made all the more explicit by Bay in his actual evocation of performative militarism:Tropic Thunder, a film about a group of Hollywood actors who go to film a Vietnam movie only to get sucked into actual warfare, plays on a TV in one scene, with the only lines heard – and spoken along to verbatim by the grunts – being Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘I know who I am! I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!’ Indeed, and such talk refashions American heroism as damn-near anti-war – a force only for rescuing those in peril than causing more of it. When Boon quotes from The Power of Myth, surely he must know he’s quoting from a book that theorises the construction of new mythologies for America. Perhaps those new mythologies are just the ones proselytised by Bay. 

Writing in The National Review, Armond White draws attention to the performativity of the soldiers’ appearance, calling them ‘real life G.I. Joes’ and ‘anatomically correct dolls’. I would go one further. They are not only performers in the sense of appearance, but in their every action. As hired guns, they are only performers in the US-Libya conflict, which is ultimately revealed to be senseless and for no known cause. The film’s final scenes show valorised heroes of war in the grunts as they leave; but the scenes also show mothers and wives mourning the fallen Libyans outside the CIA base. ‘Your country’s gotta figure this shit out,’ Tanto says to the CIA’s Libyan translator as he leaves the base for the plane home. There’s no desire for more conflict here.

It should be noted that, even as the film expresses remorse for the countless Libyans lost in the attack, Bay still takes pleasure in showing the audience said attackers getting mown down by gunfire in increasingly creative moments of visual effects work, easily the most egregious and misguided aspect of the film. The valorisation of the dead only goes one way. The audience might get the chance to pay its respects to Libyans, but that doesn’t excuse Bay’s utilisation of the horror language of shadows moving slowly between flowing white sheets of plastic, to portray the Libyan approach towards the CIA base.  Nor does this respect ultimately matter, as the final shots are of the CIA memorial wall and the two new stars added for Glen Doherty and Rone Woods. ‘For Glen and Rone’, the final title card reads, while the exact number of Libyans killed remains unknown.

And what of the individuals who come out the other side as either martyrs or heroes? Tanto is now a Second Amendment festishist’s hero and member of the American Legacy Center, a conservative organisation that pushed for the confirmation of Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sean Smith, the technician who boosted the ambassador’s wi-fi in the film, and is shown (in another culturally potent moment) playing a first-person shooter video game before the compound is attacked, was a racist moderator on a web forum for several years, who once extolled the belief that the African continent would have been far worse off without colonialism. As with any propaganda, its ultimate outcome should be interrogated. ‘Just another Tuesday night in Benghazi,’ quips Jack as the grunts come across a guy watching TV just yards away from an open firefight. But it is no longer just another Tuesday night – it is now cemented in history that, 11 years to the day after 9/11, the US was attacked in another country and suffered fatalities at the hands of the attackers, all with only brief lip service paid to the events that surrounded the attack. How many times could 13 Hours be used as a bludgeon in arguments about US foreign policy that miss the key point – they shouldn’t be in those countries in the first place? One need only gesture in the general direction of the White House right now to understand the potency of 13 Hours and the Benghazi attack – or rather, one need only remember who almost won the White House four years ago. Then again, Trump or Clinton is Alien v Predator for the Libyans. As 13 Hours makes clear, whoever wins, they lose.

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