13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
We all know about brave men and women in uniform—the soldiers, sailors and airmen who serve in the Armed Forces. They serve their country, often with distinction, putting their lives on the line for the good of the nation and its interests. When they come home, they’re greeted with flags and honors. If they’ve been hurt, they’re given help to get better. And if they sacrifice their lives for their country, their loss is mourned deeply.
But there are other patriots who serve even though they no longer wear an official military uniform. These contract soldiers, who work for the CIA’s Global Response Staff, aren’t SEALs or Rangers or Marines anymore, but their experience makes them valuable—and flexible—commodities. They’re not given orders to land in the world’s hot spots; they're hired to go to those places. And they go wherever they’re paid to be, be it Tel Aviv or Timbuktu, Beirut or Benghazi. They don’t come home to cheering crowds. Sometimes they don't come home at all.
Jack, one such GRS contract soldier, arrives in Libya at a difficult time. Strongman Muammar Gaddafi has been deposed and killed. Factions squabble for power. Islamic extremists are making deep inroads across the country, and Americans are not always welcomed.
But with tension comes opportunity, and the United States sees plenty of it. The CIA has set up shop in Benghazi, operating out of a not-so-secret compound. Ambassador Christopher Stevens is coming to visit, too, with an eye toward opening regular diplomatic channels with the country. U.S. bigwigs would love to squelch the illegal weapons trade there and foster forces more friendly to America. But to do that, they need people on the ground. And those people need protection.
That’s why Jack’s there. Same with Tig and Tanto, Oz and Boon. Tyrone Woods, nicknamed Rone, leads them—assigning guards and drivers for CIA agents. And while the ambassador has his compound and employs his own guards, Rone, Jack and the rest of the guys will be just a few dusty streets down should they ever need assistance.
Or so they all assumed.
On Sept. 11, 2012, the ambassador’s compound comes under attack by dozens of angry, armed Libyans. By dawn the next morning, four Americans are dead, including the ambassador.
The events of that night, and those leading up to it, have been the topic of a great deal of discussion, much of it politically charged. But Jack and his fellow contractors—these un-uniformed soldiers who put their lives on the line that strange, chaotic night—know what truly went on.
While 13 Hours chronicles a difficult chapter in American history, there’s much more to it than just the tragic loss of four American lives.
“Bottom line, this is inspirational,” said director Michael Bay at a press conference attended by Plugged In. The movie is based on a book of the same name, which in turn was based on the stories of these so-called “secret soldiers,” the contract guards, who lived through it. Bay’s mission was simply to tell the story of that violent night (stripped of its political aftermath). And while there are allusions to where things went wrong—a lack of adequate protection at the outset, American dithering during the attacks—the prime focus here is on the heroism of the people on the ground. “A lot of positive things came out of that night,” Kris “Tanto” Paronto said at the press conference.
The six GRS contract soldiers at the core of the story are more than a team: They’re a makeshift family, each willing to put his life on the line for his fellow warriors. All six risk their lives to save the CIA agents they're assigned to, of course; it’s what they’re paid to do, after all. But they go above and beyond as well—doing their best to rescue the ambassador and the rest of his staff. And while four people died during the attacks in Benghazi, dozens of lives were also saved, thanks to the skill, dedication and teamwork of these professional defenders.
We also get glimpses of other good people at work, too. Ambassador Stevens is called a “true believer,” someone who hopes trust and friendship might foster a better Libya and, by extension, a more secure Middle East. “Relationships between people is the real foundation for democracy,” he says to a group of Libyans. A brave Libyan interpreter stays with his CIA employers through thick and thin, and other Libyans volunteer to fight alongside the Americans (though sometimes, these fighters are acting duplicitously).
Militant Islam is, of course, at the root of the problems chronicled in 13 Hours. Islamic extremists were behind the attacks, and we see many Muslims in the act of prayer as their weapons rest against walls nearby. We hear calls to prayer and, ominously, they go silent all at once—a harbinger, Tanto thinks, of another attack.
The movie references the controversy over what supposedly started the attacks: a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube trailer for the movie Innocence of Muslims. One of the GRS employees says that he saw on American news that the attacks were connected with huge demonstrations against the movie. “I didn’t see any demonstrations,” Tanto says, confused.
In the film's credits, we see how an estimated 100,000 Muslims grieved the attacks, mourned Stevens’ death and held signs apologizing for the extremists' violent acts.
Islam is not the only religion represented in the movie, however. During a lull in the action, Tanto voices his belief that the Almighty is watching him, saying, “As long as I’m doing the right thing, God will protect me.” Then he adds, “That’s crazy, right?” When one of the warriors dies in combat, another says a quick prayer over the body. “God, watch over him,” we hear. “Guide him where he needs to be. Take care of his family.” When help finally arrives, another contractor says, “Oh Lord, oh Jesus,” in thanksgiving. Someone suggests ordering a flyby of F-16s in order to put “the fear of God and the United States” into the terrorists.
A line from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth is mentioned several times: “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.”
Two contract soldiers pretend to flirt with Sona, a chilly FBI agent. Someone watches a YouTube clip of rabbits having sex, and there's also a joke about sheep mating. We hear crude references to the male anatomy and joking allusions to "bromances" and “spooning.”
The 13 hours between nightfall on Sept. 11, 2012, and dawn the following day was filled with the sort of terror and death that those of us who've never been in combat can hardly imagine. Accordingly, the movie does its bloody best to replicate the horrors of that night.
Dozens of people die, including four Americans. We see their bodies, and watch one as it’s pushed unceremoniously off a rooftop. Other men are horrifically injured. One had much of his forearm nearly taken off by a mortar blast, and we see it hanging from the rest of his arm by tenuous tendrils of flesh. Another suffers a compound fracture, and the bone juts from the body as blood squirts from the wound.
Dozens of Libyan terrorists get gunned down, sometimes dying instantly (and bloodily) via shots to the head or chest. After the battle, wives and mothers run to the dead bodies, crying and mourning.
Bombs go off. An armored vehicle rumbles through the street, peppered with bullets, dodging explosions and finally arrives in the compound with a flaming flat tire. Libyans everywhere are carrying guns—a really tricky situation, because the contractors can’t always tell who’s a friend, who’s an enemy and who just happens to be carrying a gun. Military weapons are sold freely in an open-air market. The Ambassador’s residence is set on fire in an effort to flush out those inside.
Crude or Profane Language
About 75 f-words and more than 30 s-words. Other profanities include “a--,” “b--ch,” “d--n,” “h---” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused at least 10 times, with about half of those instances getting paired with the word “d--n." Jesus’ name is abused about five times. We hear several crude references to testicles.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink beer. A contractor laments that his teenage daughter back home has apparently started drinking.
Other Negative Elements
People vomit. Someone says he needs to urinate.
While the events in Benghazi were horrifically unique, 13 Hours is not, exactly, a unique movie. We’ve seen several similar “based on a true story” combat narratives in the last few years, from Black Hawk Down to Lone Survivor to American Sniper. And little wonder. These wartime tales are always grimly compelling. The action is relentless. And lots of viewers find these true-life combat stories informative and, of course, entertaining.
But you get a different perspective when you talk with some of the real people involved. For Mark “Oz” Geist, John “Tig” Tiegen and Kris “Tanto” Paronto, 13 Hours is more than a movie. They lived through it. They watched friends die as the real battle unfolded.
So often, onscreen casualties don’t feel like a big deal. We only know these unfortunate characters, after all, for a couple of hours before they’re gone. And, of course, we know they’re not really gone. Death isn’t real in the movies.
But the characters in 13 Hours represent real people. Real casualties. Real loss. To hear Tanto talk about his fallen friends … well, it makes it feel disrespectful to munch popcorn while watching those deaths.
Make no mistake: Oz and Tanto and Tig are glad Michael Bay made 13 Hours. After all, they helped him make it. They wanted this story told from their perspective, removed from domestic politics and cable-news bluster. They wanted it to be as true to life as possible.
But it’s telling that Tig still hasn’t watched 13 Hours. The events in Benghazi still feel too raw for him. He worries he’d get angry all over again. And I can see why: 13 Hours is a well-made, violent, profane, difficult movie. The fact that it depicts real, important events makes it no less difficult.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
John Krasinski as Jack; James Badge Dale as Rone; Pablo Schreiber as Tanto; Max Martini as Oz; David Denman as Boon; Dominic Fumusa as Tig; Toby Stephens as Glen 'Bub' Doherty; Alexia Barlier as Sona Jillani; Freddie Stroma as Brit Vaynor; David Giuntoli as Scott Wickland; Demetrius Grosse as Dave Ubben; David Costabile as The Chief; Wrenn Schmidt as Becky Silva
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