Film Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (★★)

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13HoursWith a Presidential election less than a year away, there’s never been a political climate as charged and ready to latch onto (or destroy) a story about Benghazi, directed by Michael “blow it up” Bay, no less. A story with such context and debate directed by the man who made Pearl Harbor? The headlines write themselves. And let’s add in the fact that 13 Hours’ marketing hopes to attract fans of American Sniper and Lone Survivor, two films highly divisive along party lines. And yet, by the end of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, my words were “I didn’t hate it.” Yes, Michael Bay’s fingerprints are all over, particularly in individual lines, shots, and depictions of women, but this is Bay indulging as few of his vices as possible to tell a story that, while liberally borrowing from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, is intense and as apolitical as can be.

On September 11th of 2012, an American ambassador is killed during an attack on a U.S. compound in Libya. Tasked with saving the man and, later, defending a top-secret CIA annex, are a top secret national security team fighting with little intel and even less support.

Most people with televisions are aware of the attack in Benghazi and the basics of what happened, but with such an emphasis on political minutiae – emails, who knew when at what time – Bay’s film is counting on you knowing very little about what actually went on during the event and the civilians and soldiers involved.

The slavish devotion to presenting something legitimate and authentic doesn’t just come through in the time stamps and other items prior “based on a true story” films have utilized. Preceding my screening was a brief documentary interviewing members of the actual team involved in the Benghazi attack as proof of legitimacy, and a potential spoiler for those unaware of who made it out. (I’m unsure if this will be included with all prints.)

As a piece of entertainment, I was never outright bored with 13 Hours. Bay walks a tightrope of trying to keep his nose out of the film, yet still retain his authorship – I guess the film’s affectionate nickname, Bayghazi, doesn’t work for him. The comparisons to Black Hawk Down feel intentional, aesthetically. We’re given sweeping aerial shots over villages, beach scenes, a character even refers to the film directly. Considering Black Hawk Down is one of my favorite war movies, this is perfectly acceptable and cements Bay’s intentions about the film’s tone.

As exposition isn’t Bay’s strong suit his imitation of Ridley Scott starts off shakily. Identifying and situating characters is necessary, but the only one introduced with any semblance of significance is John Krasinski’s Jack Silva, a character who, whether true or not, bears a few too many similarities to Jeremy Renner’s character from The Hurt Locker. It’s not ten minutes before we’re treated to the mandated Michael Bay Mexican stand-off as the film’s means of proving “you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.” The introduction of our lone female of significance (Alexia Barlier) is also hastily slapped together with two scenes of her going into secret meetings which are constantly interrupted. These elements play as if there’s a longer cut somewhere out there, but act like hasty exposition dumps telling us “these are the faces that matter, memorize them.”

After that, the film settles into a rather basic combat movie, along the lines of Jarhead, before the actual plot engages in full. Once the compound is attacked things become a relentless barrage of bullets and bloodshed with little let-up. This “2012 Alamo” becomes a stand-off of which group will cave first, and when the film quiets down, with the characters required to stay awake and alert, any moment possibly bringing a cadre of “tangos” they can’t repel, Bay doesn’t smother them. You’re not given 360 degree shots where everything has a veneer of cool; the emotions feel real and the actors are allowed to emote and illustrate the tension and fear.

Much of the film’s weight is carried by its biggest name, John Krasinski. The physical transformation he underwent alone (and I ain’t talking about the beard) rivals the surprise of Chris Pratt’s reveal in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s reiterated that the soldiers are good ‘ole boys who spend their time being manly – quoting Tropic Thunder, for instance – and, in Silva’s case, is prepped to stop his daughters from dating….they’re less than 7-years-old. For his part, Krasinski shows a flair for both Silva’s brutality as well as his sensitivity. So for every scene of him running and shooting we’re given a moment of quiet as he struggles to acclimate to returning home to his family and their personal struggles.

There are no true weak links in the cast, since there aren’t clear boxes for everyone to fit into (and both James Badge Dale and Krasinski talk about this being their last job, leading to speculation throughout on who’s gonna bite it by the end). Dale is the staunch commander, and really him and Krasinski anchor the film. The other members of the group are fine, but once everyone straps on helmets you’re going to recall Dale and Krasinski more than the others.

Without devolving into party mudslinging, Chuck Hogan’s script chalks it everything up to civil war, and leaves the harshest critiques to the media, who allegedly misrepresented the story, and those damn MIT and Harvard grads who don’t know nuthin’ about the military. So, are we to assume our military is made up of high school graduates (or below) who don’t how to read or write, but can shoot straight? And how does this make them any better or worse than the Libyan military working alongside them who are painted as buffoonish young men who just want our cars? In an environment desperate not to cast political aspersions, the moments where education becomes the enemies seems like someone demanding “We need to say something bad about America…that’s not political.”

And what’s sad are the missed opportunity to truly say something profound, either about the situation or the state of war. The “us vs. them” narrative common in most war stories isn’t painted as broadly here. Yes, the local military is ineffective, but they are determined to help and fight for their country as much as the Americans here are painted to be. But we’re never granted an entry into the Libyan world, to see events through their eyes. When the fighting breaks out, the American soldiers run through Libyan streets, noticing locals sitting down, going about their business, and watching soccer. Instead of looking at this as Libya’s numbness towards violence, it’s chalked up to a laugh line; they’re just being Benghazi!

Since Hogan’s script wants to deal with the boots on the ground situation, politics remains on the periphery, so don’t be surprised by the lack of a shadowy sequence where Hilary Clinton deletes emails. In fact, there’s an almost pathological fear of making any political stand, so we know next to nothing context wise, not even why we’re in Benghazi to begin with. Once the compound is attacked, the civilian contractors working in the CIA are tasked with finding a way out, and thus the film looks at a near international distancing from what’s going on. It’s not necessarily U.S. refusal to help, but everyone associated with the political strategems of the moment. True or not, Hogan makes this a universal failure, as opposed to laying the blame at the feet of any particular party, and it works in the film’s favor. We watch the civilians, not the soldiers, deal with their fate and there are a lot of good reaction shots and acting coming through this suspense.

13 Hours definitely proves Michael Bay needs to have less of himself in his films. The biggest failures come from Bay putting in stuff he enjoys, all of which stick out like gaudy thumbs. The Bay close-ups are passable, but you’ll also get the stumbling girl who brings snacks and nurses a character, an unattractive bespectacled boss, as well as Michael Bay’s continued love for tattered, white sheets sailing in the wind. And let’s not forget to honor some of the lines that could only appear in a Michael Bay film. Devoid of context, the most hilarious (and I’m assuming unintentionally so) line – “I need a bagful of money and a flight to Benghazi!”

Can we say Bay is trying to distance himself from the loud, garish works of his past and heading into a more serious direction? Considering he’s signed on for another Transformers, I’d say the answer is no. But 13 Hours shows he has the potential to allow actors to act, scenes to develop, and a story to unfold.

While the script treads lightly on the politics or the Libyan people, while making enemies out of education…and the Libyan people (sort of), it could have been far worse. This is not American Sniper or Lone Survivor, and as someone who couldn’t stand either of those two film’s jingoistic “America, fuck yeah!” brands of patriotism, 13 Hours doesn’t throw it in your face, despite the few frames of tattered American flags and declarations of “making a stand.” Maybe because the year is new and I’m uninterested in ripping something to shred, the movie worked for me, plain and simple.