Movie Review – 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi
Director : Michael Bay
Year Of Release : 2016
Principal Cast : James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, Matt Letscher, Toby Stephens, Alexa Barlier, Freddie Stroma, David Costabile.
Approx Running Time : 144 Minutes
Synopsis: As an American ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya, a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
While the name Benghazi may not mean that much to the vast majority of people outside of the United States, to those within it’s essentially the mother of all US political clusterf@cks. The [spoiler] death of a US Ambassador on the shores of Libya, an apparent botched rescue mission by military forces, and the subsequent political fallout has clouded much of President Barack Obama’s second term in office, not to mention those within his administration perceived by some as having either covered up, or even orchestrated the real-world events depicted in Michael Bay’s latest action film. Given its controversial nature, one could mount a reasonable argument as to why Michael Bay probably isn’t the right guy to present an even-handed account of the events of September 11, 2012. Conversely, one might also mount a compelling augment to suggest he is, given its explosive two-thirds finale is right up the man’s wheelhouse. Either way, he did film it, and in spite of slim pickings throughout the script, Bay’s restraint in the bombastic action sequences give things a slick, polished tension that mitigates more than a few of the flaws.
As somebody watching this film from the outside of whatever motivation or foreign policy discourse would suggest, 13 Hours plays pretty well as a straight-up action film, albeit one with very limited explanation, and a decided lack of ambiguity. After the US Ambassador in Lybia (Matt Letscher) is attacked on the anniversary of 9/11 inside a secret compound in Benghazi, a group of security force contractors, including Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) and Jack da Silva (John Krasinski) take their force through the hostile streets to rescue him. Instead of a few angry members of local militants, the team encounter a virtual army of hostile combatants, and the desperate race to survive and escape capture or death begins.
Similarly to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Bay’s 13 Hours presents a swathe of generic CIA, military, special ops and local Benghazi denizens with the muscular narrative style Bay has honed over a decade or so of his fetishistic depiction of homogeneous American force. The faces are effectively nameless representations of actual people (or combinations thereof), thanks to Bay’s fortitude in giving the film’s prime focus to the lengthy titular 13 hour battle to stay alive. Whether it’s effective or not probably isn’t the issue for me, rather it’s the confusion I had in trying to determine exactly what the hell was going on. With the exception of Dale and Krasinski, who’ve been in a few other projects I’m familiar with, almost everyone else was new to me – in itself, this is probably a good thing, since having a familiar face might detract from the “real people” scenario playing out on-screen. Although this grounds the film to a degree, it does present a catch-22 in that we’re never quite sure who we’re watching, what their status is (for the most part) and why we should care about them.
Krasinski garners the most “character development” in this Bay opus, as the guy just trying to fight through to get back to his pregnant wife and kids. Numerous, and I do mean numerous, Skype-calls back home give us an insight into da Silva’s emotional state throughout, and even though Krasinski’s performance is on-point, I never really brought into the fact he was some kind of hoo-rah gun-totin’ type. James Badge Dale’s bearded Woods is a prototypical Bay amalgam of reality and machismo-infused cinematic bravado. Woods, whether depicted realistically or not, comes off as the kind of anti-authoritarian jaw-crack who’ll dismiss the chain of command if he sees one of his own, or a fellow American, in trouble. Is it believable? Nah, but it doesn’t really matter when Bay’s widescreen action prowess kicks into gear.
The presumptive battle royale over which must of this two-and-a-half-hour explosion-fest ensues is masterfully directed, if not at a storytelling level then assuredly at a technical one. Bay’s command of his camera, of editing and of knowing when to…. er, pull the trigger on brutal, body-shredding violence is keenly honed, his hair-trigger sense of place is well earned as he casts his wide-angle lens in, around, above and throughout The Annex (the key locale of the film; a large, sprawling compound in which a “secret” CIA base has been established). Bay’s cool blue night lighting and his dusty ochre-hued daylight footage combine to once again give his film a slick, polished sheen in spite of its brusque premise. The trouble with Bay’s work here, however, is that even with all the technical might at his disposal, it’s for naught without compelling emotional heft, and sadly, 13 Hours lacks that in almost every sense.
When the bullets and grenades start flying, the adrenaline kicks in but the meaningfulness doesn’t. Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but even in the sense that I know virtually nothing about Benghazi, the film works purely as a spectacle and nothing else. Is it a bad film in this regard? No, and in Bay’s sledgehammer claws the story is very much a Black Hawk Down-esque action flick, to the point one of the characters even name-checks the choppers as if to say “yeah, we get this is similar, but isn’t the same”. Bay’s lack of nuance in crafting characters we care about, beyond simply being shot at, hamstrings what little weight the film can muster: neither is the film specific enough (in my opinion, at least) to court controversy – good guys and bad guys are clear for the most part, although a continual running gag about the Yanks not being able to tell the difference speaks volumes to their overall foreign policy, while the square-jawed testosterone involved as the body count rises is pure Bay gold.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi is an action film dressed up as an action film. Whether the entirety of it is accurate or not doesn’t really matter to me, although it might to some/many. Bay’s hefty direction reeks of a similar sweeping style to that of his much maligned effort in Pearl Harbor, but this one (in spite of Bay ripping off his own work in that film with a similar “bomb dropping from a height” shot included midway through the finale) is far more exciting at a superficial level, making it – surprisingly – one of the director’s better films of the last decade.
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