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Movie Review: '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi'


A big Hollywood action movie is opening today. That is not exactly news, except that this movie is about a tragedy, one that's been a political lightning rod since September 11, 2012. That is when the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which included CIA and State Department staffers, came under violent attack. Here's a little of how that moment is depicted in the new movie "13 Hours."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We need immediate assistance. We are overrun.

GREENE: Four Americans died in the attacks in Benghazi, including ambassador Chris Stevens. Film critic Justin Chang has been thinking and writing about "13 Hours." He's the chief movie critic for Variety. Thanks for coming on the program and chatting with us.

JUSTIN CHANG: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So, Benghazi, when Americans hear that, I think they think about the tragic events there. They think about a two-year congressional investigation and how this has become so politically charged, which makes me wonder how the movie handles the story of what happened there.

CHANG: Yes, and I think that the title tells you a lot. It's very much focused on the events of the attack itself. So this is very much a minute by minute account of what was going on on the ground. The politics are almost completely removed from the equation, and the idea is sort of to catch you up in just the tumult and the violence and the confusion and the chaos. And I would say that "13 Hours" is above all else intended to be a heroic tribute, and there's something that I think is respectable about that even though I think the movie - it has some problems as well.

GREENE: I want get to the problems...

CHANG: Right.

GREENE: ...But I do just want to underscore this point. I mean, everyone sort of involved in the political debate, aside from the question of blame that we've heard about...

CHANG: Right.

GREENE: ...Would probably say these were American heroes who were serving this country and involved in a tragedy, and all agree on that.

CHANG: Yes, that's exactly right. I think that, you know, the movie certainly can claim a certain high ground in just saying, look, these men are indisputable heroes. I think that is something that Michael Bay has sort of - I refer to him in my own review as Hollywood's most kind of aggressively pro-military director. I think that in that respect, he's kind of a good fit for this material.

GREENE: But you mention there were problems in the movie that you found.

CHANG: And I would say that those problems go hand in hand with the choice of Michael Bay, who is known for the "Transformers" movies, "Pearl Harbor," a much worse kind of depiction of a historical tragedy. And his films are incredibly bombastic and incoherent and vulgar, frankly.

GREENE: You're talking about the other ones, not "13 Hours," OK.

CHANG: The other ones, I think that with Michael Bay, he's almost stumbled on an ideal choice of subject matter here because he has this sort of genius for incoherence. The way he directs action, he very much is kind of not giving you a very clear picture of what's happening. That approach kind of suits this movie because this is very much a movie about confusion, and so I have very mixed feelings about it in some ways because it is a real grind. It will give you a headache after a while. It is loud. It is assaultive. But in some ways, I think that's sort of the right approach, you know. It's kind of a movie to sort of experience and be immersed in. It's not really an interesting movie to think about afterward. There's a much better kind of more thoughtful and reflective movie to be made about the Benghazi narrative, but this one puts you in it in a way that is, on those terms, pretty compelling.

GREENE: Sounds like you're saying I should go see it.

CHANG: (Laughter) I - you know, as a self-respecting film critic, I always check myself before I make the mistake of recommending a Michael Bay movie.

GREENE: (Laughter).

CHANG: But I think that this is definitely the most serious-minded and responsible thing he's done in a very long time, and I came away with kind of grudging admiration for it, I have to say.

GREENE: Grudging admiration from Justin Chang, who's the chief film critic for Variety, talking to us about the new movie "13 Hours." Justin, thanks for joining us.

CHANG: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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