Not Just Bombs and Brawn: How '13 Hours' Repurposes the Republican Action Movie for 2016

Michael Bay's latest uses action-movie clichés to convey an anti-government message.
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(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

When news broke early last year that director Michael Bay would be helming a film based on the 2012 Benghazi attacks, at least one liberal critic wasn't all too pleased. Bay has a reputation for directing films that double as ultra-militaristic paeans to American exceptionalism. Marked by a lionization of service members and a fetishization of guns, Humvees, and other military equipment, Bay’s films (including Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Transformers) have been compared to army recruitment advertising. While Bay, known as a “vulgar auteur” in some circles, has his defenders, The Intercept's Peter Maas worried aloud that the film would be a rallying cry for a new war in the Middle East. Others speculated that its January release date was timed to kick off the 2016 presidential elections. "I can only presume from Bay’s politics ... that it won’t exactly be The Nation's favorite action picture," Scott Mendelson wrote in Forbes.

During promotion for the film, however, Bay has gone out of his way to claim that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is non-political. “The politics got in the way of this great human story that happened,” he told Fox News on Wednesday. “This is really to honor these type of men that do this every day—that put themselves in harm’s way—that’s what this movie is about.” Since the film's release on January 15, critics have concurred. In LA Weekly, Amy Nicholson wrote that the movie was “adamantly apolitical.” Slate’s David Ehrlich described the film's ethos as “humanistic” and argued that Bay’s intention was to “honor the heroism of the guys on the ground.” Variety’s Justin Chang summed up this critical consensus when he noted that “the politics are almost completely removed from the equation.”

At face value, the film telegraphs as a non-political action flick. 13 Hours doesn’t mention either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton by name; it focuses on the experience of the Central Intelligence Agency contractors who are tasked with defending the United States consulate and CIA base in Libya. But while the film does not name-drop contemporary politicians, it’s hardly non-partisan. As action movies have done for four decades, 13 Hours uses dog-whistles and archetypes to speak to Republicans in their own cinematic language. Nicholson argued in her review that “all-American men of action knowing more than the bureaucrats” is nothing new in action movies. That's true, but in the case of Bay’s new movie, the trope amplifies the political message. 13 Hours employs tired action movie clichés in support of the Republican position on Benghazi, bringing their tried-and-true anti-government message into a combustible contemporary context.

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Just like they do in real-life politics, relationships fuel the action in 13 Hours. The film's key relationship is between the boots-on-the-ground CIA contractors—including former Special Forces soldiers led by Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale)—and their CIA station chief, known only as Bob (David Costabile). From the beginning, 13 Hours depicts Bob as a career-minded civilian who puts his own interests first and undermines courageous men under his command. In an early scene, Bob tells Jack that his primary goal in Benghazi is to avoid trouble because he is nearing retirement. Sound familiar? The dynamic, portraying a superior unwilling to take risks in pursuit of the larger good, is not much different from a longtime convention in cop movies: The strict police commissioner who chews out a rebellious officer for destroying city property is a recurring character archetype in action classics like Lethal Weapon and Bay’s own Bad Boys.

Action movies have long utilized this trope to make government bureaucrats look like threats to public safety. 1971’s Dirty Harry was one of the first. In the film, the titular Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), a rogue San Francisco cop who has long watched violent criminals get released on technicalities, decides to take the law into his own hands. Critics took note that the movie sent audiences the message that high-level representatives of the state are ill-equipped to maintain order and administer justice. While the film was a massive success, Roger Ebert scoffed at its “fascist” moral position, while Pauline Kael labeled it a “right-wing fantasy.”

Like 13 Hours, 1984’s Red Dawn transposed the message that government can be a thorn in the side of a hero into a military setting.

Dirty Harry inspired a whole sub-genre of anti-government films in the '80s. Like 13 Hours, 1984’s Red Dawn transposed the message that government can be a thorn in the side of a hero on a noble mission into a military setting. In the movie, after Russian soldiers parachute into a small Colorado town, teenage rebels band together to fight them off—but they also have to battle their own elected leaders. 1982’s First Blood, depicting a disgruntled Vietnam veteran (Sylvester Stallone) attempting to re-integrate into society, showed Rambo's trouble wasn't with the Vietcong, but with politicians—the men and women who, he says, “wouldn’t let us win.” The idea that politicians lost a winnable war re-surfaced in an entire Vietnam-revenge sub-genre of '80s action—films like Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. These movies offered viewers two villains: the actual criminal—often a foreign enemy or urban criminal—and the bureaucrats or government officials who prevented the hero from capturing him.

In 13 Hours, Bay weaves the Rambo pro-military ethos into 2016 politics. The casting choices in the film alone convey the government has gone soft: Played by Costabile, CIA station chief Bob is chubby, middle-aged, and near-sighted; he stands in stark contrast to the ripped, virile young soldiers—including a bulked-up Krasinski and a grizzled Dale. It is in part by virtue of its ripped soldier stars that the film conveys government employee beta-males like Bob were responsible for the real-life deaths that occurred in Libya in 2012 in addition to the actual attackers. But the movie also conveys its Republican message through the role Bob plays in hampering the soldiers' efforts to save lives: When the CIA chief first gets word of the attack, the soldiers argue for defending the consulate, but the chief orders them to stand down. When they disobey and snap into action, it’s too late to save the ambassador and his civilian staffer. “We would have saved them if we’d gone when we got the order,” one of the heroic contractors notes.

The question of whether a “stand down” order was ever given remains unanswered. Republicans have suggested that Clinton herself could have given such an order, but a 2014 House Intelligence Committee report found “no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support.” In Mitchell Zuckoff’s 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, the book on which Bay's movie is based, the real-life soldiers state that their CIA station chief gave the order. Bay presents this interpretation as fact, which would debunk the version of these events claimed by the Obama administration, and refutes Bay’s argument for non-partisanship.

Despite Hollywood’s liberal reputation, Bay's partisan perspective is hardly anomalous at the movies.

Despite Hollywood’s liberal reputation, Bay's partisan perspective is hardly anomalous at the movies. This is the fourth January in a row that a major studio has released a pro-military film featuring a narrative in which American soldiers embark on a dangerous assignment, receive little support from their superiors, and are ultimately punished for it, either physically or emotionally: a list including Lone Survivor, American Sniper, and Zero Dark Thirty. These pro-war films served the same political purpose as those that forged the anti-government dynamic in the '70s and '80s: they rallied a demographic that preferred loud displays of American might to diplomacy. Dirty Harry, for its part, challenged politicians and lawyers, but also reacted against the era’s counter-culture by arguing for peace instead of war. First Blood, Red Dawn, and others in the '80s sought to re-build American confidence after the demoralizing loss in Vietnam and the shockingly peaceful administration of Jimmy Carter, who has boasted that not a single shot was fired under his watch.

Liberal critics of Obama would certainly not label his administration “peaceful”: America still has thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, and Obama has only intensified the drone warfare initiated by his predecessor, George Bush. But with the exception of Obama's role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, the president's tenure has been marked by a distinct lack of chest-thumping patriotism and a dearth of clear-cut military victories. Like Bay, those who publicly celebrate the might and righteousness of American military—or, like Trump, rally the crowds to “make America great again”—are reacting against this president’s quieter form of militarism.

13 Hours may be one of the most politically resonant films in years—and not just because the film's screenplay features an embedded consensus with the right. It should come as no surprise that the film has received the endorsement of influential Republicans too. Donald Trump rented out a theater for his supporters in Iowa. Ted Cruz referenced it in his closing statement at the most recent Republican debate, calling it a film about “the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives ... and the politicians who abandoned them.” And Republican site Breitbart.com, heralded 13 Hours as “a damning case against a Obama Administration that not only has a depraved indifference towards the truth, but also towards American lives.”

No, 13 Hours isn't political at all.

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