13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) / War-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language
Running Time: 144 min.
Cast: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, Alexia Barlier, David Costabile, Payman Moaadi, Matt Letscher, Toby Stephens
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Chuck Hogan (based on the book, "13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi", by Mitchell Zuckoff)
Review published January 18, 2016
13 Hours takes place during a volatile time in Libya, shortly after the overthrow and murder of their dictator, Muammar Guadaffi in 2011. Various factions began their scramble for power, starting with raiding the government arsenals for high-powered weaponry, as other countries, sensing the instability that could lead to atrocities, pulled out of their embassies in the area. The U.S. did keep a small outpost of diplomats in the city of Benghazi, as well as a hidden CIA annex not far away that was under the protection of a small band of armed ex-Special Forces contractors working for a CIA-funded organization called Global Response Staff. Former Navy SEAL Jack Silva (Krasinski, Aloha) is the new guy in the group of six beefy, bearded men, led by Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (Dale, The Walk), and this time out proves to be the most dangerous contract work for everyone involved.
On September 11, 2012, the eleventh anniversary of the '9/11' attacks, a group of local radicals lay siege on a building housing the United States Ambassador, Chris Stevens (Letscher, Her), while the security company is ordered to stand down by their boss there. Eventually, they can't stand idle anymore and decide to 'go rogue' to help their fellow Americans in need, but too late to stave off the major damage that is done. The fatigued men end up having to scramble back to the hidden CIA base when the armed militias are determined to attack there as well, but they're grossly outnumbered. The men do the best they can against overwhelming odds to minimize casualties during the prolonged firefight while waiting for outside help that seems slow to arrive.
Film critics' favorite punching bag, Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction), will probably not find much love in this overlong film that's high on explosions and poor on the building blocks of trying to tell a proper story. Ironic that Bay features a thematically misplaced quote from Joseph Campbell without actually employing any of that author's input on traditional ways to construct a narrative. Despite it being based on true events, this doesn't keep the director from stuffing it full of his trademark touches, including lots of ripped and burly men showing off their physiques, macho posturing, comically bumbling sidekicks, snarky repartee, fetish-y displays of sparkly gunfire, mind-numbingly protracted battle sequences, slow-mo fighting, ersatz melodrama, cameras that can't stand still for three seconds, edits that last even less, and, worst of all, wanton jingoistic flag-waving.
It's not as easy to see privately contracted bodyguards in the same light as we would actual soldiers given that they're paid very well for services they have volunteered for, but Michael Bay puts his very best effort to make these men as heroes who are doing their work first and foremost for the protection of country rather than for a payday. This is especially important because we see many of these men willingly go off to battle zones rather than try to take care of their wives and children back home, so we need that angle of patriotism to sympathize with their mission as something more than reaping profits for a private company.
13 Hours isn't an overtly political film, nor is it decidedly pro- or anti-war, though many people, especially on the right side of the political spectrum will likely see it as a debacle to pin on the Obama administration, and on Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State during the events that transpired in Benghazi, during an election year when she will likely be the Democratic nominee. Neither name is mentioned during the film, but clearly there is frustration among the privatized soldiers that they could have saved more lives if they were allowed to do what they've been trained to do instead of continuously having to listen to bureaucrats who've never seen a day of battle in their lives. Instead, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan keep the stories mostly personal, though he can't help himself from trying to paint the men as flawless heroes and those in charge of the operation as bumbling, incompetent fools.
Bay's efforts to humanize the men is what a director should do, but he's so inept at it, winces are often induced in places where he's striving for gasps or tears. Take for instance a scene in which Jack is Facetime-ing with his wife back home as she is driving around (nothing like an emotionally excitable mom who will put her kids in mortal jeopardy to look at her phone instead of the road while talking to their father may not make it home himself), the proceeds to try to clumsily place an order through a drive-thru at McDonalds while in a sensitive state (and while still on Facetime!). Those who aren't swept up in the grossly manipulative way that Bay shoots his films with pro-American imagery will probably roll their eyes seeing the Libyans take the time (and wasting a lot of ammo doing it) to shoot up an American flag while storming the compound. If the killing of innocent people won't get you, surely taking Old Glory out will -- in slo-mo, no less, so you have time to raise your ire levels to max capacity.
This is the second war film from Michael Bay and despite nearly fifteen years of experience under his belt since 2001's Pearl Harbor, he shows he hasn't really matured much as a filmmaker in the interim. In my review of Pearl Harbor, I criticized Bay for reveling in violence by engaging in gratuitous money-shots during the battle sequences, including those of the heroes, citing an instance when we get a bombs-eye view of an attack against Americans during the Japanese raid. Instead of being horrified at people we're supposed to be rooting for being slaughtered, Bay would rather have us think, "Wow! That was a cool shot!" In 13 Hours, he gives us a nearly identical shot of a mortar shell striking the rooftop of a building where one of our heroes is on, followed by another slow-motion scene of another hero getting taken out with all sorts of fun sparklies around him, again pushing us to admire the visuals at a moment when we should be crying at seeing one of the good guys in the potential final moments of his life.
In short, Michael Bay might try to sell you on the notion that he's a gung-ho American, but underneath it, he's just a private contractor of a filmmaker, willing to do whatever it takes to push buttons of nationalism and maudlin emotional beats, while dressing it all up in as commercial a fashion possible visually through copious pyrotechnics. This patriot-for-profit isn't trying to push forward any politics in his film because, when it comes right down to it, he's neither 'Red' nor 'Blue', because taking any such stance would hurt making that 'Green', which is really all he's ever made films for, and which is the measure by which he judges the worth of his or any movie. He's neither pro- nor anti-war because he's only interested in delivering exciting action beats -- big guns, fast cars, and bulging biceps -- mostly because he finds the image of them dangerously sexy to feature prominently in nearly every frame of his movies. A war movie only gives him a chance to blow up more of them without abandon in the sexiest of ways possible.
©2016 Vince Leo