When a self-promoter like Donald Trump buys out a theater in order to offer a free showing of a movie, naturally I become suspicious that there's something seriously wrong with the film.
There's nothing wrong with the film. Just because Trump thinks having a free showing will bring him an advantage doesn't diminish the value of the movie at all.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi may well be the best war movie ever made, in large part because the writers and the director were so meticulous about making sure they got everything right, according to the memories and statements of the survivors of the fight.
It's also the best war movie because it already fit the requirements of a good war film: A relatively small cast, so we can get to know all the pertinent characters; action confined to half a day, three locations, and delimited into discrete chunks, so it can be explored within the two hours of a movie; genuine heroes whose stories don't have to be "juiced up" for the audience to admire and care about them; zero moral ambiguity about the actions of the heroes; fair treatment of everyone, including the "bad guys."
Either you go into the movie knowing something about the Battle of Benghazi, or you don't. It was, by sheer numbers and duration, merely a brief skirmish with no decisive effect on the outcome of the war that terrorists are waging against the United States.
Yet if you want to define the American military and its difficulties, quandaries, and achievements today, this movie is as complete an explanation as you can get.
The story is simple enough. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, is in Benghazi, where there is a State Department installation ("Consulate") at a former private residence. His goal is to win hearts and minds for democracy and for cooperation with the United States.
Many Libyans long for both goals, including a paramilitary group called "17 Feb," which, like all ragtag militias, is reliable up to the moment when it isn't. There are Libyans hired to provide external security for the Consulate, and a handful of State Department security officers, two of whom arrived with the ambassador.
There are also a lot of high-powered weapons floating around Benghazi, and a lot of warlords and small groups of soldiers who set up roadblocks here and there, mostly in hopes of getting a hostage or stealing a car. It's a tense and dangerous place, and nothing is under anybody's control -- not the government, not the Consulate, and not the CIA "secret" station a half-mile away.
Then comes September 11th, and a group of well-armed anti-American militiamen, poorly trained but highly motivated, storm the Consulate. It is obvious that, as one of the characters remarks, "Everybody knows what's going on except us."
The militia overruns the Consulate grounds immediately. Chris Stevens and his security guards immediately retreat to the "safe haven" built within the house, where it is believed the attackers cannot get through to them.
This belief is true, in terms of forcing doors and getting inside; but the attackers are quite willing to settle for pouring gasoline so that it flows across the floor and under the "secure" doors. When they light it, the smoke and fire are intense.
Hiding in a bathroom, the ambassador and his two guards realize they'll die of smoke inhalation there, so they make a run for another part of the safe haven. One guard is separated from the ambassador, and is driven from the building by the fire. The other security agent dies. The ambassador's body is found later; he died of smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, however, at the CIA station, there are six members of a team of former U.S. military men, drawn from elite groups in every branch of the service except the Air Force. From the moment that they get word that the Consulate is under attack, they realize that (a) with their training, they are in a position to offer real help, within minutes, and (b) nobody else can help.
But they are ordered by Bob, the CIA station chief (played powerfully by David Costabile), to "Stand down." That order is never rescinded, but after many minutes and ever-worse news from the Consulate, the six-man team disobeys orders and drives over to the Consulate.
The scene is absolute chaos. There are armed men in Arab dress running around or hiding, and there is no way to ascertain which are attackers and which are would-be defenders. When Americans come near them, everybody pretends to love Americans.
Gates that are supposed to be secured are found wide open; but the most important fact is that the building is intensely on fire, and all that the few soldiers who get inside can find is the body of the guard who died near the ambassador.
There is nothing to do but leave the Consulate and head back to the CIA compound. Because this is obviously an organized, planned attack -- which is why so many people knew about it -- the soldiers correctly anticipate that there will be an attack on the CIA compound.
The remainder of the movie involves repelling waves of attackers, who change and improve their tactics through the night, and finally cause devastating damage with pre-aimed mortar attacks. In the process, two of the soldiers we've come to love are killed, and two are seriously wounded.
Meanwhile, another small force arrives from Tripoli and takes control of the Benghazi airport, so that at dawn, all the personnel from the CIA, alive and dead, can be evacuated to the airport and then out of the country.
Here's what makes this film a must-watch movie for anyone who values the war-movie genre: This movie does what Saving Private Ryan was given undeserved credit for: It gives the audience the experience of the fog of war.
It does this, not by bad filmmaking, so that the audience has no idea what is going on. On the contrary, screenwriter Chuck Hogan and director Michael Bay help us understand both the cause and the purpose of everything that the characters do. Never have we had a clearer understanding of the actions of every individual soldier in a complex action.
However, because the soldiers have only limited information about what's going on -- not just locally, but throughout the U.S. military that they keep calling on for help -- they are operating in a complete fog. How long will the enemy keep attacking? What are their capabilities and their intentions? What level of support will the U.S. military provide?
No one knew until it either happened ... or didn't.
As one soldier remarks, as they board the airplanes to get out of Libya, "All Libyan aircraft. Not even an American plane to take us home."
This isn't your standard World War II movie, where you've got your usual assortment of pre-diversity diversity: The Italian from the Bronx, the Jew from Brooklyn, the college boy, the barber -- you know, the cast of characters the screenwriters learned about from Ernie Pyle.
No, in this case, the names and characters are determined from life. John Krasinski (of The Office) plays Jack Silva, who becomes the main viewpoint character by the end. We are aware that while he has the soldierly skills that make him valuable to the team, he would rather be home with his family; if the economy hadn't tanked, he wouldn't have had to earn money this way.
James Badge Dale plays Tyrone "Rone" Woods; Pablo Schreiber plays Kris "Tanto" Paronto; David Denman plays Dave "Boon" Benton; Dominic Fumusa plays John "Tig" Tiegen; and Max Martini plays Mark "Oz" Geist. By the end of this movie, you will feel as if you know every one of these men. We have seen them behave like normal American men; we have seen them behave like the kind of hero-soldier you pray will always be on the wall protecting us from enemies.
What we see is that they have two families: The family back home, with wife and children; and the family of brothers that they're fighting with, and dying for if need be. The people they rely on in combat to have their back, to fulfil the assignment they're given, to keep fighting until the fight is over.
There are points where they have no reason to expect any outcome but death -- mention is made of the Alamo -- and they aren't happy about it. There are phone calls to family back in the States -- a custom we saw in American Sniper, which makes this the first war in modern times in which soldiers are in nearly constant contact with their loved ones. Far from a distraction, it's a gift.
The actors give honest, natural, restrained performances -- they never act in such a way as to embarrass the real men whom they're portraying by maudlin or macho over-acting.
The whole cast, including other characters beyond these six, performs so brilliantly that it would be insane for the Screen Actors Guild to give their Ensemble Acting Award to any other group of actors ... but they probably will.
John Krasinski gives an Oscar-worthy performance in a leading role; David Costabile gives a supporting-Oscar performance as the station chief. Heck, you could fill the acting categories with actors from this movie and never find a one that is not worthy to be on the ballot.
But none of this will happen ... because of politics.
Not because this movie is political. It is absolutely not political. Instead, it is factual.
But facts become political when people are running for office, or trying to protect their legacy, or trying to save their careers and reputations. It is in the interest of the State Department, the U.S. military, the CIA, and Hillary Clinton to deny every fact in this movie.
The soldiers themselves, however, have no reason to lie and have nothing to gain from doing so.
If they had not been ordered to stand down (which the government denies), then they would have gone to the Consulate much earlier - perhaps in time to save the ambassador's life.
There was no "demonstration" outside the consulate that got out of hand -- it was a planned militia attack from the beginning and everyone knew it, though the people trapped in the CIA compound heard the news reports that supposedly such a demonstration had taken place, provoked by some weird video on the Web.
They pled for help -- even for symbolic F-16s, which could have been there in half an hour, to simply do a close flyover so that the attackers would get a sense that the whole might of the U.S. military was coming.
We saw the power of such a bluff when, stopped at a roadblock, one of our heroes points overhead and says, "Do you see that drone? Well, it sees you. It knows who you are. It knows where you live, where your family lives." And even though there is no such drone at that time, the bluff allows them to win through without bloodshed.
There is no finer acting in the movie than in that moment. Yes, there are intensely emotional moments later on, and the actors do those beautifully. But in that moment, John Krasinski -- who says almost nothing -- looks into the camera with eyes that speak eloquently of his willingness to kill the man he's pointing his pistol at.
I never want to face an armed human being with that look on his face.
It looks like he's "doing" nothing. But he's doing everything.
But we get such brilliant acting over and over again, from the whole cast. The filming and editing make it so the story never, never stops. We know what these men know, we see what they see, and we see them through each other's eyes.
What movies am I comparing 13 Hours with? Tora! Tora! Tora! The Dirty Dozen. Kelly's Heroes. American Sniper. Von Ryan's Express. The Longest Day. The Battle of the Bulge (1965). It's way better than pretentious and political movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, and Saving Private Ryan. Even better than the brilliant biographicals Patton and Lawrence of Arabia.
(By the way, IMDb's list of the 50 best war movies of all time contained ludicrous entries. Gone with the Wind is not a war movie, even if there are a few scenes from the Civil War. To call Doctor Zhivago a war movie is a joke. Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful take place during World War II, and The Killing Fields shows the aftermath of the Cambodian War, but they don't depict combat or soldiers; they aren't "war movies," they're atrocity movies. Stalag 17 and The Great Escape have soldiers in them, but they're prisoner-of-war movies. The African Queen is brilliant, but in a list of "war movies"? They left out so many real war movies to include these.)
(And if you want to look at the best war-movie list I found, try this one from Popular Mechanics . What makes this list great is that they go war by war, listing the best and the worst. For the Mexican War, it's the same movie. And there is no entry for the Spanish-American War. Nor are the Indian Wars counted. But hey, they tackle hard issues in this list, and pull no punches.)
Let's figure that before he made 13 Hours, Michael Bay learned something from his unwatchable Pearl Harbor. This time around, he made none of the mistakes from that vast wasteland of a movie.
If you consider 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi as a movie, it is emblematic of its category.
And as written and filmed, it is as non-political as possible.
But in its context, it is political, in this sense: If you think America has been a force for good in the world, and that we need to be a protector of democracy and decency and downtrodden people wherever that is possible, then this movie shows you what happens when you elect people to our top offices who hate America, feel no sense of responsibility to persecuted populations, and despise the U.S. military.
At no point from the first moments of the battle to the present, has Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, who bear one hundred percent of the responsibility for the complete lack of preparation and support in Benghazi, told the truth. Period. Dynastic Clintons don't believe truth is even a goal; all that matters is deflecting political consequences, which their toadies in the press are eager to do.
So when you hear of 13 Hours being dismissed as mere propaganda, believe me: The only propaganda is the claim that 13 Hours is propaganda.
13 Hours doesn't hate anybody.
Not even the CIA station chief -- in fact, the script loves him and makes him both human and understandable.
Not even the fanatical Muslim attackers. The movie takes time to show us the women and children grieving over the fallen attackers after the Americans are gone. We are shown over and over again that most Benghazians just want life to go on normally; the fanatics on both sides are tiny but well-armed minorities.
Should you see this movie? How can you not?
There is one lasting effect from the Battle of Benghazi and Obama's and Clinton's weaselly handling of it: It is one more nail in the coffin of American credibility, the coffin first built by Ronald Reagan when he allowed indiscriminate naval shelling of Beirut neighborhoods, and then withdrew American Marines from Beirut in response to a terror attack.
Reagan, like Obama, showed crucial weakness. Reagan's action was all the proof Osama bin Laden needed to make his claim that if you hurt Americans enough, they give up and go away. Bin Laden's assessment of our politicians was correct, except when someone named Bush was president.
But our enemies always know that the anti-military party in the U.S. -- pretty much the Democratic Party, in these post-Moynihan, post-Jackson, post-Nunn, post-Lieberman days -- will undercut and seek to destroy the best military leaders (Petraeus lost his job, but Clinton did not?), and will starve the military until, like today, it lacks the capacity to carry out simultaneous major operations.
Of course Putin does what he wants, and the Chinese, too. ISIS now has effective control of multiple states in Africa and the Middle East, and projects its power anywhere it wants -- because our leadership has proven over and over that they lack the will or wit to resist our enemies.
The days when the world counted on us to save democratic nations from destruction are over. Our would-be allies in other countries know that we will abandon them when our political winds change.
But don't be deceived: Blowhards like Trump are just as dangerous as lying anti-military boneheads like Hillary.
Trump blusters about what he'll "make" other countries do -- and every one of his boasts would, if followed through, lead us into terrible wars that we don't need to fight and probably couldn't win.
We don't need a president who's a bully any more than we needed the Great Apologizer. Trump would end up backing down even more often than Obama -- or he would lead us into failure, like Carter's abortive Iran-hostage rescue operation or the Somalian and Kosovar interventions.
The way you avoid war is to select your battles very carefully, and then win them with devastating, overwhelming force. However the Democrats might have whined about our occupation of Iraq, there was no doubt anywhere in the world that when President Bush said, We will take you down at the time and place of our choosing, it could and would happen.
Eventually, General Petraeus found the strategy and tactics that would win the occupation -- something that eluded our commanders during the Vietnam War -- and had the support of the president in applying them. Had his policies continued for a few more years, we would not be in the deep hole we're in now.
Eight years ago, we had the military capability that, if Iran seemed on the verge of deploying nuclear weapons, we could have taken them away. Today, all we can do, short of nuclear war, is wring our hands and pay them tribute to leave us alone, as Obama's Iran treaty did.
This strategy worked, more or less, to keep the Byzantine Empire alive for a few hundred years longer than it deserved -- but its territory, population, and power were eroded at the edges until there was no more money to pay tribute to the invaders.
America's wealth depends on a peaceful world -- a peace that has existed among us and our trading partners solely because America had the ability and the will to resist and destroy the enemies of that world order.
Now we have one political party that is determined to stop protecting the world from the agents of entropy. When that world of free and open trade collapses, because of our lack of will or ability to control the chaotics, then we won't be able to maintain a military capable of projecting power beyond our borders.
It won't matter whether the missiles belong to Iran, Russia, or China -- the mere threat of their use will cause our leaders either to cave in and obey vile, anti-democratic foreign powers, or fight a last-ditch war that we will, by then, be almost certain to lose.
No great empire lasts forever. No Top Nation stays in that position for very long. The superpower seems invincible until, all of a sudden, it evaporates.
President Obama is only the most recent of the Evaporators: Clinton and Carter did the same job.
Our safety and the world's prosperity depend on having power that we can project anywhere -- and demonstrating that we have the will to use it when necessary, and the good sense not to use it when it isn't.
In Benghazi, we had the power to show that attacks on American interests and personnel would not be allowed. Instead, we showed that our leaders would tolerate such attacks and do absolutely nothing in reply.
We know what Hillary does in a crisis -- nothing, and then lies about it. What would Trump have done in Benghazi? Bombed everybody, in a country where most people didn't actually hate us yet.
Hillary would embolden the enemies we already have. Trump would make new ones. Yeah, let's have Mexico actively cooperate with ISIS, or install Iranian nuclear missiles, to try to fend off the bullying from President Trump.
So yes, the movie 13 Hours is political, because anybody who sees this truth-telling movie and understands what really happened in Benghazi would have to be insane to vote for any Democratic candidate now on offer for the presidency.
And I say this despite a deep loathing for the immigrant-hating coterie that seems to control the Republican Party these days, robbing it of anything like a conscience.
I can only hope that sometime before the delegate counts are all locked up, the Democrats will nominate Anybody-But-The-Liar, and the Republicans will nominate one of the several sane, experienced, non-hate-filled candidates who consistently place third, fourth, or fifth in the polls: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie. Or dip down even deeper, to choose John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, or Scott Walker.
There's no lack of good candidates on the Republican side. The problem is the petulant Republican voters.
We're choosing a president here, kids. Not deciding which reality show to watch tonight.
If you actually put Trump in the White House, nobody will have the power to say, "You're fired." But if he's not on the Republican ballot, then that can't happen. See how that works?
If the Democrats don't nominate Hillary, then there's no way she can accidentally win. And if the Republicans don't nominate Trump (or his less-attractive twin, Cruz), then no horrible accident will make him president, either.