TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. How U.S. officials responded to the attack in Benghazi is still controversial. The new film "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi" tells the story of what happened on the ground from the point of view of military contractors guarding the CIA base that was attacked on September 11, 2012, along with the U.S. ambassador's residence in Benghazi, Libya. The film is adapted from a 2014 book that Mitchell Zuckoff wrote with those contractors. The film stars John Krasinski and James Badge Dale and is directed by Michael Bay, who's best known for his "Transformers" series. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In advance of its opening, Michael Bay's film of the memoir "13 Hours" was predicted to be red meat for anti-Hillary Clinton forces and a mortal blow to her supporters. It might be. You can't predict how a movie like this will be used in the political arena. What I saw was a ham-handed but grueling and generally effective portrait of men forced into a near-impossible battle as a result of incompetence from on high - but no real accounting for that incompetence. The film, like the book, is almost completely told from the vantage of the private security contractors - ex-military hired to work for the CIA, not for U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who die in an attack on his residence. That leads to some confusion. Despite pre-credit titles explaining the U.S. presence in Libya, the movie never makes clear that the covert CIA base in this coastal, fortress-like city had little official connection to the ambassador's residence a mile away. Before the attack, some of the contractors pay a visit to that residence and predict an attack would be a slaughter. They find the security detail - two guys they make fun of for finicky mustaches as opposed to their own bushy beards - out of their depth. Every word they utter is shown to be right. The movie is a two-hour I told you so. The lead actors - among them John Krasinski as Jack Silva, a pseudonym, James Badge Dale as Tyrone "Rone" Woods, and Pablo Schreiber as Chris "Tanto" Paronto - are muscled up and intense, though I confess I found them sometimes hard to distinguish, given their beards and similar acting styles and the jittery cinematography. Krasinski is the newly-arrived one who can't seem to quit war, and talks to his wife and daughters back home, and neglected to renew his life insurance policy. That's pretty broad, but it's nothing next to the commando who reads aloud from Joseph Campbell's book, "The Hero's Journey." David Costabile, best known as Gale in "Breaking Bad," and the go-to actor for prissy bureaucrats, is the CIA base chief - the non-terrorist villain. He tells the skeptical contractors that there are people in the station who know better. They're from Harvard and Yale. He tells them, you're not CIA, you're hired help. He's the one who refuses to let our heroes head to the ambassador's residence at the first and even second and third signs of attack - to the point that they have to show insubordination, but of course, arrive too late. When the book "13 Hours" came out in 2014, a government official contradicted this account, but the movie doubles down on it. The Libyans are an enigma; the villagers, detached; the police, riding off an advance of attacks; the attackers, faceless men who melt out of the smoke and darkness and on whom the contractors can't fire for fear of killing friendlies. That's the scariest part - when they just don't know who's a friend or a foe, and the base chief on the walkie-talkie can't tell them. As usual, Michael Bay comes up with great images - the light, a mix of soft blues and hard, slashing oranges from fire and explosions. But those images don't always cut together and give you your bearings. Plot points get lost. Where are those U.S. planes that have supposedly left Croatia? Is it the fog of war or the fog of Michael Bay? Probably both. And talk about overkill - one of the most ridiculous shots I've seen is the photo of a prominent character's wife and child fluttering before the camera like a fallen leaf after an explosion. For the record, there's no mention of Secretary of State Clinton in "13 Hours," and only one of the president, who, we're told, has been briefed. The movie ends with the survivors speculating the attack had been planned weeks in advance. But the administration admitted as much after initially blaming an anti-Muslim video on YouTube. The only big news is that a handful of brave American security contractors discovered that U.S. intelligence agencies can be spectacularly uncoordinated. But who knows what the fallout of this agonizing portrait of fallen heroes will be?
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our 2002 interview with David Bowie, or our recent interviews with Oscar nominees including Adam McKay, director of "The Big Short;" Tom McCarthy, director of "Spotlight;" Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay for "Carol;" and Brie Larson, the star of "Room," check out our podcast, where you'll find those and many other interviews. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.