For me there’s always a hint of skepticism when watching a movie that’s supposedly “based on a true story” but in the case of Michael Bay’s docudrama 13 Hours, and many like it, the concern isn’t whether the film is completely accurate—the answer to that should be obvious—it’s how far filmmakers go to deliberately fabricate and simplify factual information to construct a working narrative. Don’t get me wrong, fictionalizing “true stories” is absolutely essential to the filmmaking process, just because truth is stranger than fiction doesn’t necessarily make the truth a more engaging story.
With that said, watching 13 Hours I was never once convinced by its factual roots, for me it was more like watching an assembly line of war movie clichés, a manufactured film whose appeal solely relies on the hallmarks of previous, superior war movies. 13 Hours is a bizarre spectacle that seems to be proud of its own Hollywoodized trite, and at the same time completely uninterested in exploring the social and political complexities surrounding the actual 2012 Benghazi attack.
For brief context, the 2012 Benghazi attack to which 13 Hours centers around was an event in Libya where Islamic Militants assaulted a compound killing two diplomats, including a U.S. Ambassador, and afterwards attacking a separate compound a mile away, killing two CIA contractors. While my knowledge on this attack is rather limited, it doesn’t take a genius to see where Michael Bay may have abused his power of artistic license, or where he takes great liberties with the information he is given to work with.
The opening scene is a montage of newscasts, a collage of testimonials and news coverage from American media. Michael Bay gives us a sense of realism with the images, an ugly world of perpetual conflict and violence in Libya. However, despite the quality of the editing, the voices of the news anchors guiding these images also seem to be dehumanizing the conflict—keeping the audience at a safe distance away from the Libyan individuals, whose everyday reality is defined by this conflict.
What’s painfully evident is that these people (the Libyan citizens) are only set design for Bay’s glorified action spectacular. 13 Hours runs at a sprawling two and a half hours, not a single minute devoted to the Libyans, their motives and personal lives are utterly disregarded. When they are shown, they are often seen at a distance, or in groups, shot in wide frames which further emphasize their lack of singular identity. Obviously, Michael Bay isn’t interested in a multifaceted drama about separate cultures, here he seems more interested in establishing a villain for his film: the faceless Muslim terrorist. This is a resounding problem in cinema, the authority of a character’s morality in docudramas are decided by the director—whose own agenda is often questionable.
Of course what’s a good villain without its strategically placed, morally upright protagonists—in the form of its fish-out-of-water, family man protagonist, Jack Da Silva (played by John Krasinski) or his loose-cannon, more experienced, character foil Tyrone Woods (played by James Badge Dale). Just knowing the fundamentals of the attacks, the idea of a “main character” is troubling, multiple perspectives could have been explored here with equal or more depth.
The CIA’s Chief of Base (played by David Costabile), simply referred to as the Chief, holds the unique position of managing the contractors and being the one placed under the intense scrutiny of the American government at the time. The film, however, would rather place him as the position of calculated authority, whose authoritative directive is held in higher regard to his own morality—simply said, he’s the film’s designated bully. 13 Hours’ predilection toward classic film tropes is also realized in the form of a female CIA operative Sona Jillani (played by Alexia Barlier), while there’s nothing particularly wrong with choosing one character to represent multiple, it doesn’t surprise me that Michael Bay has chosen this specific character to act as the film’s sympathetic pacifist.
When it comes down to it, it’s ultimately the film’s themes which are meant to reflect the subject of the film. And while 13 Hours isn’t a terrible film, there are problems that need to be addressed. First, if you know anything about Michael Bay’s perennial relationship with the American flag, then you’ll know he’s something of a jingoist. While patriotism is hardly a crime in filmmaking, it’s certainly a byproduct of 13 Hour’s oversimplification of the Libyan conflict. The contractors are something of a mythologized ‘American hero’ archetype, large burly men with hearts of gold. The film reminds us of their humanity before the film’s extensive climax, depicting their interaction with loved ones. The Islamic Militants are shown praying, the camerawork is strange, a shadowy deep focus, the muslim men are kneeling and in front of them very clearly are assault rifles—a manipulative tactic on Bay’s part.
The actions of the contractors are always imbued with a sense of moral rectitude, the countless men who die at their hands always seems justified, without any sense of limitation. 13 Hours never seeks to question their acts of violence, in Michael Bay’s train of thought, these are acts of self-defence—however, we are never presented with the question of why Americans are in Libya in the first place, or why the Libyans are so angry at their presence. The film shows roadblocks with armed men refusing to allow Americans entry, kids playing on tanks turned into charred tin boxes, Libyan men selling RPGs to Americans on the street but there is never any context, the social history never once discussed in the film. One realizes quickly that this isn’t Michael Bay telling a true story, it’s him making a movie. An action-packed, romanticized and mythologized account of a true story.
It’s ironic that 13 Hours makes two references, one being Joseph Campbell, whose works fuelled the power of creating mythology—a man whose works Bay awkwardly tries to connect his pseudo-spiritual themes to—and the other is Tropic Thunder, a comedy about a film crew fictionalizing and over-dramatizing the experience of a soldier.
I am not accusing Michael Bay of Islamophobia or being racist, however there’s a broad marginalization he is making with cultures, both Libyan and American. The weird part is, however, that it’s probably not intentional either. It was Michael Bay’s job to make a good movie, not to tell a completely accurate story. These tropes and clichés in 13 Hours are something he probably saw audiences connecting to, and for the most part he was right, they just didn’t necessarily make a good movie. Most of all, Bay is guilty of oversimplification, and a lot of films based on a true story are too guilty of this—look at Trumbo, it’s a little convenient that the filmmakers left out the part about Dalton banning anti-leftist literature and strong arming his opposition to silence.
Films are pieces of entertainment and, as I stated earlier, fictionalizing is necessary, not to mislead viewers but to engage them. As Roger Ebert said in his review of The Way Back, “not every incredible story makes a compelling movie.” It’s also important that if you ever come across “based on a true story” again, not to reject it as an advertising gimmick, or taking it as complete truth—filmmakers aren’t paid to tell the truth, they’re paid to tell stories, and for what it’s worth, that’s what Michael Bay’s 13 Hours did.