by Philip Price
Director Michael Bay is not someone you would call subtle. As the director of films like “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” ‘Bad Boys’ I & II, and the ‘Transformers’ series it is clear to see the guy doesn't mind indulging just a smidge. Typically, the guy gets a pretty bad rap for crafting films of spectacle with very little substance, of putting forth his uber-machismo attitude that displays the women in his films as little more than figures of sexuality, and for generally allowing his movies to get away from him as the action (and more specifically the explosions) take over. That said, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is very much a Michael Bay film. Of course, it is a film that Bay has been wanting to make for some time now and that desire, that passion clearly shines through. One could add to the list of Bay's tendencies his penchant for idolizing the American flag and the country it represents. When it comes to America or at least the American military, Bay seems to believe in absolutes and by absolutes I mean the guys on the ground, the soldiers, the people doing the dirty work are the kind of people we should all aspire to be. And maybe that's true, maybe the way Bay has depicted the six men who didn't have to do what they did on September 11, 2012, but chose to risk their lives to save other American lives is completely accurate. I have no qualms with how these heroes are represented as ‘13 Hours’ doesn't look to get political, but simply aspires to tell the story of the type of man it takes under such circumstances to make shit happen. My qualms with the film come when these men have little to no substance to them, when they are more or less interchangeable, and when the attempts at adding some weight or personal insight to the situation are so blatantly obvious it takes you out of the movie. Still, those who go into ‘13 Hours’ knowing what they want and what they're getting will undoubtedly describe this as nothing short of awesome and the type of pro-American film liberal Hollywood doesn't make enough of. Instead of being pro anything though, I like to imagine most filmmakers simply try to lend each story they tell a sense of well-rounded perspective, but with Bay there is no inhibition about the actions of these men and to even question as much is a fallacy. And so, ‘13 Hours’ is the culmination of everything Bay has ever wanted to put to screen and while it's certainly an entertaining action flick it still doesn't connect in the affecting way his over-powered soundtrack suggests he wants it to.
Based on the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, ‘13 Hours’ tells the story of when ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) traveled to this hostile territory only to be subjected to a coordinated attack by Islamic militants on his compound and the nearby American embassy. At two and a half hours the film details the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself and the aftermath. After a whirlwind of informative text explaining Libya's civil war where the same militias that attacked the American embassy and CIA compound were formed as a result of the opposition of leader Muammar Gaddafi we are thrown into the exposition of meeting our lead protagonists. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) is a private contractor hired by good friend and head of security Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale) to protect the inhabitants of a secret base in Benghazi where the CIA is working to gather intel. The chief CIA agent on site, Bob (David Costabile), doesn't particularly feel the hired guns are necessary and so he is more or less forced to put up with Rone and the rest of his gang that includes Tonto (Pablo Schreiber), Boon (David Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa) and Oz (Max Martini). It is when the lack of any proper security at the embassy is exposed and these premeditated attacks begin that our heroes who are residing at the CIA compound less than a mile away, but who technically have no responsibility to the ambassador or his own security team, are forced to jump into action. While this small group of operators and soldiers along with a small contingent of Libyan forces have no hesitation in reinforcing the CIA compound and embassy it is their chief who withholds permission to take action. It is here the film hints at the political accusations towards State Department officials who, in the aftermath of the attacks, were criticized for denying requests for additional security prior to the attack. In her role as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton subsequently took responsibility for the security lapses. While there is no mention of Clinton in the film the frustrations and lack of faith in these highly trained soldiers is apparent in the sentiment. That these soldiers were willing and considered it their responsibility to defend the compound and the American lives inside it is the story Bay is telling and in this sense he is provided with enough gunfire and patriotism to fuel his fire.
As our moral compass in the story Krasinski's Silva is who we cling to most. Given it is a Bay film there is some trouble in finding something below the surface with any of these men, but given the fact I'm a fan of Krasinski and given his usual charm paired with Bay's trademark virility is on full display here it combines to be the most stirring of the performances. From the early close-ups of Silva readying himself to remove his wedding ring (the hired hands are all be married with children and remove their rings so as not to give their enemies an edge) to the ham-handed flashbacks in which we see Silva building a tree house with his two daughters while his wife tells him their girls, "don't need a tree house, they just need more time with their father," it's easy to see the manipulation Bay is employing to suck us into the story. The problem is Bay doesn't need to actively try to make us sympathize with these people. Even if the general public doesn't know what it takes to be one of these guys, to be a soldier, most still understand the sacrifices being made and the level of courage it takes to look potential death in the face and still roll the dice. There is an inherent sense of who these guys are based solely on the line of work they're willing to be a part of, but again - Bay is not known for his subtlety. What is even more troubling than Bay's approach to his character development though, is his approach to the action and violence that is portrayed in the film. Fair warning: the violence is gruesome as all get out with some gnarly visuals put on full display so that audiences might get immersed in the unthinkable lengths some humans will go to in order to do away with other humans. And while the acts of violence in this film are meant to display a lack of humanity on the side of the militias Bay purports to give us these moments so that we might be in shock and awe over just how gnarly things get. There is no sense of loss, no emotional resonance to these moments where actual human lives are being decimated in the blink of an eye, but rather the feeling is that these deaths are almost vulgar in their representation. It's as if Bay is getting off on showing the reality of a hand hanging by only a few tendons. It is only through the slim attachment to Krasinski's Silva that we sense any type of compassion, but it's nowhere near enough.
I began this review by touching on Bay's tendency to over-indulge and while this tendency is clear in a number of examples throughout ‘13 Hours’ the most glaring one is in that nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime. The story certainly creates a complicated world of politics, of good guys and bad guys, and logistics that need explaining that will come to mean more as the events progress, but we aren't even thrust into the main conflict of the film until almost an hour in. There is no doubt the screenplay could have been tighter and the number of action scenes cut in half. By the time we reach the last 45 minutes of the film the whole affair has become such pure chaos that it is impossible to tell who is fighting who and who is good and who is bad. Every good guy has a bushy beard and ash-stained face to the point it is impossible to tell them apart much less make out the difference between them and the people they are fighting against. While Bay has always been a maestro of action sequences his over-indulgence here comes to disarm him as the shoot-outs get repetitive. There isn't enough to differentiate between what our protagonists are doing from one fight to the next to make us understand what has changed in between despite the enemy clearly trying out new tactics. While the film can be beautiful to look at there is no sense of cohesion between the rapid gunfire and the countless explosions that light up the sky, but spark nothing in us emotionally. That said, Bay isn't completely out of tricks as a car chase sequence at the center of the film is peak Bay. It is a sequence so over the top and so unabashedly extreme that there is no way the actual events could have unfolded as we see them here and yet it is as tense as anything in the film while simultaneously being the most exhilarating sequence. It relies on no performances from any of the actors and could essentially be a short film in its own right, but while a highlight among the movie surrounding it this only manages to show the weaknesses of the final product as a whole. Bay is still keen to intercut breathtaking imagery between battles and shoot almost every scene at magic hour, but none of this, none of the over-long battles, and none of the manufactured emotion are enough to make this anything more than a rousing, one-off action movie where the only thing I'll remember is that our heroes like “Tropic Thunder” and so I kind of liked their movie. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but hey, it could have been a lot worse.