Recent History Reduced to ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’

13 Hours takes a politically fraught event and turns it into another Michael Bay shoot-out

Taking on a political hot-potato (one showing no sign of disappearing from public view as the Presidential election year continues) is a risky move for a filmmaker. It’s all the more surprising that this action thriller set during the storming of the Benghazi embassy in 2012 comes from Michael Bay, better known for blowing up asteroids, Alcatraz, and a variety of robotic aliens.

Let’s be clear from the start: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, following the actions of a group of private military contractors, picks a side in a much disputed event. Bay has drawn criticism in some quarters for political bias, but that’s unfair. This is the story of the military contractors, and it’s perfectly fine to show that. There are a couple of key decisions still argued over, but he’s telling it the way some of the men involved did. The bigger problem is that it’s largely irrelevant, as Bay, purporting to focus on the men, seems much more interested in explosions and gunfire.

At least there aren’t many roles for women. While this wouldn’t normally be reason to celebrate, when it comes to Bay it’s a small mercy sparing endless lingering shots of scantily clad beauties, crass comments, and downright creepy conversations such as the “Romeo and Juliet law” glibly dragged up in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) to justify a relationship with an inappropriately young woman. 13 Hours is very much a man’s world, and that man has to be of the tough, brave, and jargon spouting variety.

The two main characters are Jack “Da” Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone S. “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale). The latter heads a small team assigned to provide security for the CIA compound in Benghazi. The former, an old comrade in need of employment, arrives to work with him. It’s immediately clear, following a tense stand-off with locals as they try to drive back to base from the airport, that this is a dangerous land. Even clearer, those CIA suits are not to be trusted. The station director (David Costabile) dislikes Tyrone and his men, thinking them little more than muscle-bound lunks. The antipathy goes both ways. Early arguments show the soldiers giving into frustration at the obstructionist and naïve behavior of their charges.

This set-up is about as far as Chuck Hogan’s screenplay is willing to go in fleshing out believable human beings. Once they’ve spoken their names, discussed the family back home, and gone on a little test run that allows them to showcase cool heads under pressure, the real story — the one everyone knows a little of — begins. United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives in Benghazi and insists on staying down the road in a practically indefensible structure surrounded by only a handful of men. It might sound like an open invite to terrorist groups, and it is. The structure is stormed, Stevens is lost, becoming the first US Ambassador to die in the line of duty since 1979, and attention turns to the CIA compound.

Bay treats the build-up like filler. He seems to have no interest in any of the people or the place they’re in. All the soldiers are interchangeable. They engage in macho banter, pump iron, and get the occasional emotional moment chatting with family to show they have feelings after all. Allegedly honoring their service over the 13 hours of the title, the film doesn’t bother to make them resemble real people. There’s even less interest in anyone that isn’t a military superman. The Ambassador is quickly forgotten, and anyone outside Benghazi, aside from Glen “Bub” Doherty (Toby Stevens) because he’s also a military superman, is belittled, with the CIA chief shown in the worst light when the chips are down.

What Bay, and the entire film, is waiting for is everything to go to hell. When the attack on the embassy commences, he gets to send his crack team to affect a rescue, then send them back to defend the compound against waves of attack. As an action film, it’s a pretty effective one as well. The fighting is frantic and confusing, unfolding at night and against a confusing array of opponents. The Americans can rarely tell who is on their side and who isn’t. So they wait and they shoot, repeating until bullets whizz everywhere, mortars fly, and explosions take over the screen.

13 Hours gets up close for much of this. The camera careens back and forth, leaping above to survey the scene and jumping back in again. There are a few crisp visual flourishes, notably when Bay follows a mortar heading ominously towards the soldiers, but for the most part confusion reigns. It’s tense, it’s bloody, and often gripping.

The level of loving detail doesn’t stretch to anything else. Aside from the blank cut-out soldiers, paragons of heroic American glory and nothing more, there’s an almost impressive lack of interest paid to the bigger picture, or really anyone who isn’t a fighting man. Late in the day, as if realizing the story might have become too one-dimensional, Bay allows the camera to roam across dead Libyan bodies, family members gathering to mourn. It’s a cheap trick thrown in after everything is already done. When the fighting happens, the film doesn’t care about anyone except a small handful of soldiers, and even then it cares about them not as people, but as movie heroes.

13 Hours is a series of good action scenes cut from material that deserves more. It’s the best film Bay has made since the first Transformers (2007), and probably since The Rock (1996), but that isn’t saying all that much. It’s not dull though, which is something.

Along with Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film, are a decent, if overly dramatic, selection of extras which come on a separate disc. These includes behind the scenes footage, and a look at the real life soldiers and the actual events depicted in 13 Hours.

RATING 5 / 10