'13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'
Before I get into this review, I should start with a semi-apology. I did this with ‘American Sniper’ as well, even though it didn’t make a lick of difference when the comments piled up. I want to make it clear that obviously I’d admire those who are willing to risk their lives for their country and, in particular, the six courageous military-trained security contractors depicted in ’13 Hours’. That said, I have problems with the movie and the type of propaganda it represents. I’m going to be voicing that displeasure now. On with the show!
Based on a true story that became a major political talking point, ’13 Hours’ spins a yarn about a horrible night in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, 2012. A buffed-up and bearded edition of John Krasinski stars as Jack Silva, one of six security contractors at the heart of the event. None of them have much in the way of personalities beyond a single note hammered into the audiences’ heads, with the Silva character emerging as the protagonist because he has the most famous face and because his family at home gets some screen time.
After an oddly extended prologue establishing the contractors at work, we flash ahead to the big night. An American ambassador is killed during a late night attack on a U.S. compound in Libya. A gang of security officers were available to help save him, but the CIA demanded they stand down in one those “Oooh, look at that slimy government stooge” scenarios. Eventually, they try to help the ambassador, fail at the task, and end up trapped at the secret CIA base where the six security officers have to fight wave after wave of generic evil brown people in an explosive action extravaganza from that subtle humanitarian Michael Bay.
Yes, this is another of those propagandistic military porn movies that have been arriving on screens like clockwork every winter for the last few years (e.g. ‘Act of Valor’, ‘Lone Survivor’, ‘American Sniper’). With the exception of the morally complicated ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, these movies go out of their way to show off how American soldiers can shoot the hell out of armies of militant folks from Muslim nations when required. ’13 Hours’ might have the loophole of the American heroes being independent security contractors not specifically affiliated with the U.S. military, but since it’s a Michael Bay picture, the jingoism and explosions ring too loudly for that to matter.
’13 Hours’ might have slightly fewer American flags on display than the usual Bay epic, but that still means more hit the screen here than in any other movie currently in theaters. Since this is based on a tragic true story, Bay cuts down on the one-liners and movie star stunt-casting out of respect. Sure, there’s the stunt-cast Krasinski and a handful of one-liners, but that’s still toned down, people! Characterization is no less subtle than the bombastic filmmaker’s usual standards. Everyone is essentially a cartoon or a stock type, even though they all feature names of people involved in the actual events. Not that such piddling concerns as human drama matter much. Bay races through that material as quickly as he can to get to the stuff that interests him – namely: explosions and killing.
Admittedly, the action here has a sense of rhythm uncommon in most of Bay’s work. The film builds suspense leading up to the firefights, rather than just a clusterfuck of boom-boom-boom. Beyond that, he essentially treats ’13 Hours’ like an action movie. He may as well be making a ‘Call of Duty’ adaptation given the general disregard for the politics or humanity of the non-Americans in the tale. Dozens of Libyans are mowed down in the movie without remorse (unless you include a single token shot of a mother crying towards the end), while any individual American death is treated as a shocking tragedy. There’s something undeniably icky about that. Combine it with the constant shots of American flags and the movie starts to feel like the blockbuster equivalent of the “Nation’s Pride” segment in ‘Inglourious Basterds’. Seth Rogen courted controversy by making that comparison to ‘American Sniper’ last year. If he’d waited for ’13 Hours’, it’s unlikely that anyone would have kicked up a fuss.
After all, there’s very little sense of reality left once Michael Bay splatters his style all over the story. Indeed, the movie is filled with GoPro gun mounts, blindingly fast editing, and ridiculous show-off shots that the director is known for in the midst of a sea of explosions. He even repeats his own “bomb-camera” shot from ‘Pearl Harbor’, immediately drawing comparisons between his two works of blatant military propaganda.
Here’s the thing about Michael Bay: I actually kind of like him as a filmmaker in a deeply guilty pleasure way. He has a distinct voice and, when combined with the right material, like the ludicrous pulp of ‘The Rock’ or the remarkable bad taste comedy of ‘Pain and Gain’, his big dumb movies can feel special in a big dumb way. However, everything Bay touches comes with a certain fetishistic grossness. When he’s getting gratingly commercial or gratingly militaristic, his work is just much too much. ’13 Hours’ falls firmly into that category.
That said, the film is well made on a purely technical level. It has some extraordinary action scenes, even though it’s uncomfortable to enjoy them when they’re heightening a genuine tragedy into popcorn spectacle. While the characters are cardboard, the actors all give decent performances on a scene-by-scene basis. Even Krasinski proves to be a decent dramatic actor and action figure.
However, there’s just something sleazy about the whole militaristic affair that makes it difficult to sit through as entertainment, and the script is far too ham-fisted in its characterizations to work as drama. Ultimately, it’s a movie made to capitalize on the recent success of Hollywood sanctioned military propaganda, and with Michael Bay in charge, it’s the biggest and boomiest entry in that genre to date. So, if you enjoy that stuff, you might enjoy Bay’s more-isn’t-enough approach. However, if you hope for something a little more narratively and morally complex in your war movies, stay as far away from the theaters showing ’13 Hours’ as possible.