13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was supposed to be Michael Bay’s Black Hawk Down, a chance for the action maestro often criticized for his style-over-substance approach and use of lowbrow humor to tell a compelling story of real-life heroism based on politically-charged recent events. Instead, the film has met with lukewarm reviews and a surprisingly tepid box-office reception; this despite early prognostications that the omnipresence of questions and accusations about the Benghazi tragedy dogging the Presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might drive politically-minded audiences to theaters (a’la the massive turnout for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper last year).
Now 13 Hours is facing a new volley of negative criticism: Some of the few active filmmakers still working in Libya, the embattled nation where the events of the film take place, are chastising the movie for what they say is an inaccurate portrayal of their country and its people.
While 13 Hours is not set to be released in much of the Arab world until early March (and will likely not open at all in Libya), local filmmaker Osama Rezg has already been able to see the film and has harshly criticized the way Bay and his team chose to depict the war-torn nation; which has existed in a state of political and military turmoil since the Libyan Civil War and the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. While the Libyan filmmaker is sympathetic to Bay’s decision not to shoot the film on location in the country (it was instead mainly filmed in neighboring Malta and Morocco), they are none the less critical of the myriad details the film gets wrong. Explained Rezg (via Deadline):
“Just from the trailer, you can see it’s not Libya, the actors aren’t Libyan, even what the characters are wearing is not authentic to what a Libyan would wear.”
More substantively, Rezg is concerned that the film’s dramatization of the tragedy (which claimed the lives of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others) could become part of the ongoing negative stereotyping of the Arab world in general and Libya in particular in Western-produced films. Said the filmmaker:
“I wish Michael Bay and the production had come and spoken to us. We could have helped him. We were all saddened by the death of Ambassador Stevens. He was loved by the Libyan people. That action did not help Libya. We all mourned for him. I hope this is not another example of the Arab world being portrayed in a negative way and the wrong image being spread.”
Based on the nonfiction book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” by Michael Zuckoff, the film primarily depicts events from the perspective of a team of CIA security contractors who were stationed nearby the site of the initial attacks. While it certainly doesn’t cast postwar Libya in the most flattering light, among the few consistent positive notices Bay has received about the film from (Western) critics is that it largely avoids becoming unnecessarily political in its depiction of the events: In addition to making little mention of (or assigning specific blame to) U.S. political or military leaders on the homefront, it also features scenes wherein the bodies of attackers are mourned by their families and closes on images of Libyans gathering to mourn Ambassador Stevens, including a news photo of a sign being held up declaring that the attacks did not represent Islam. While unlikely to assuage continued concerns of misrepresentation, it was an unexpected move from the famously politically-incorrect director of Bad Boys and the Transformers films.
13 Hours is scheduled for release in the Arab world on March 3, 2016, though it does not yet have final approval from most of the various censor-boards in the region. Michael Bay is next scheduled to direct the yet-untitled fifth Transformers movie, and has also been circling adaptations of the Tom Clancy video game Ghost Recon and a “passion project” about the fight against elephant poaching in Africa.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is now playing in U.S. theaters.