13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016) review
written by: Chuck Hogan
produced by: Michael Bay and Erwin Stoff
directed by: Michael Bay
rated: R (for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language) runtime: 147 min.
U.S. release date: January 12, 2016
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is the twelfth movie directed by Michael Bay and the third of which, along with “Pearl Harbor” and “Pain and Gain”, that is based on actual events. Like those previous movies, Bay is aiming to reenact what transpired in real life here, despite offering over-dramatizations with bold and italicized Good vs. Evil stances, surrounded by American machismo and varying degrees of the director’s trademark explosions. Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (“The Town”) are aiming to immerse viewers in the cacophony of chaos that occurred on September 11, 2012, that would come to be known as the Benghazi attacks. While it’s great to see Bay take a break from his transforming toys, it would’ve been nice if the director changed up his approach a bit with “13 Hours” , which ultimately suffers from too many Bay-isms.
“13 Hours” opens with a summary montage that catches viewers up to speed on the events that led to the political climate of Benghazi, Libya well into 2012. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, warring militias help themselves to the stockpiles of weaponry left behind, forcing foreigners out of the volatile country.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) remained however, residing in a consulate compound where he continued to conduct business and hold press conferences. The CIA annex nearby was run by Bob (David Costabile), a whiny and arrogant bureaucratic chief who oversees his group of secret spies and intelligence experts, while also housing a team of six military contractors, or Global Response Staff (GRS), who serve as security to both the compound and the secretive annex.
On the 11th anniversary of 9-11, the compound is raided by armed Islamic militants poised to take out Stevens along with any other Americans they come across. Knowing they are the sole line of defense, the bearded GRS team consisting of Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumasa) and new arrival, Jack Silva (John Krasinski), disobey stand-down orders from their chief and move in to defend the compound. Outnumbered, with nary a friendly in sight, the team find themselves doubling back to the rooftops of the annex where they hope to stand off against the hostile invaders. Without knowing who exactly the enemy is and uncertain whether or not any American reinforcements are coming, the fatigued warriors maintain their position well into throughout the night, well into the early morning hours of the next day.
Although there is obviously a patriotic tone to the movie, “13 Hours” is predominately apolitical (if that’s possible), which is important, since the goal here is to have the audience experience what these American ex-military defenders went through. Any political rhetoric we hear comes from brief talking head clips or the unspoken (and unsubtle) way in which a lack of military back-up is depicted. Clearly, the U.S. government, particularly the Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton, underestimated the kind of security needed for both of these facilities in Benghazi. Right? Probably, but like everything else, there’s usually more to what we know, what we’re told and the truth.
The movie does portray the politics of the specific working dynamic between the eggheads led by Costabile’s chief and the GRS team led by Badge Dale’s Rone though. I rather enjoyed seeing Costabile’s nebbish arrogance shut-down Badge Dale’s ready-to-go machismo. Sure, watching the contention between the two build throughout the movie is a little heavy-handed, but it wound up being an interesting added tension to all the action.
With the subject of the Benghazi attacks still a source of contention for many and certain conspiracies afloat to support just how the situation developed into such a quagmire, the best move Bay and company make is simply to reenact what transpired throughout the titular timeframe. The director and Hogan (who’s adapting Michael Zuckoff’s 2014 book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi) are focused on doing just that, going from one action scene to the next, leaving viewers to figure out what’s what and who’s who.
Before Bay kicks things into high gear, he successfully manages to get some scenes in early on that convey the heightened tension of the area, when we’re introduced to two of the main protagonists of the story. This can be found when Krasinski’s Jack arrives in Benghazi as the newly added team member who’s picked up from the airport by his friend Rone (played with an assured strength by the always welcome Badge Dale) – only to be cornered by one of the self-appointed militia leaders. It’s definitely one of the more intense scenes of the movie, one that establishes how perilous any turn can be on the streets of Benghazi, for locals or foreigners (er, Americans). It’s also the rare scene that slows down to show such danger – the sweaty calm before the storm, if you will – giving viewers an idea of what our heroes have to deal with.
Other than learning some about their families back home, there’s really no time to get to know the “good guys”. After the “Welcome to Benghazi…” Jack gets from Rone, there’s the requisite introduction to all the four other bros. Throughout the movie, we’ll see one playing Call of Duty, another reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and yet another watching Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder”. Something for everyone. Hogan and Bay depict all of them as guys who are loyal to their brothers-in-arms, their family, willing to lay down their lives for those they are defending.
Of course, the bearded “bad guys” shown in “13 Hours” are broadly painted as the enemy. When they’re not in the shadows, their glares are ominous and they speak without subtitles, because ticket-purchasing Americans aren’t looking to understand the enemy – they just want them in the crosshairs and mowed down. That’s exactly what they’ll get here, something Bay excels at – high body counts and extensive property damage. In case we had any doubts (Bay can’t have that) how villainous the bad guys are, the director includes a slo-mo shot of armed Muslims leaving an American flag in tatters. There’s definitely a target audience in mind in the overlong “13 Hours”.
Of the actors we follow, the lead protagonist is Krasinski’s Jack, intended to be our gateway character to the story. If you’re only aware of his work from “The Office”, you’re going to see a completely different Krasinski, one who fits nicely into the action/espionage role and one who is physically fit – Bay purposely positions his camera on a shirtless Krasinski in case we needed some added emphasis. What? It’s hot in Benghazi (or Malta, which is where the movie was filmed). It’s in the third act, when all goes to hell, where we see Krasinksi break down and convincingly convey the emotional and mental toll of the ceaseless fighting. He has a “I don’t understand why we’re even here” moment that’s kind of typical for such a movie, but what I found welcome was Jack’s shell-shocked state at the end of the thirteenth hour. One can see the understandable transition from adrenalized frenzy to post-trauma cooldown begin.
I mentioned overlong above and there are certainly scenes in the movie that could’ve been pruned – most of them involve members of the GRS team dialing home. When it comes to the heart-tugging of contacting loved ones, less is more – especially when you consider the urgent focus should be on what is happening around these men, not who is back home. There’s a sequence where Jack is Skyping his wife while she is in a McDonald’s drive-thru with a back seat filled with demanding children. It just feels like it goes on and on and winds up being laughably eye-rolling.
“13 Hours” is at its best when Bay is building to and immersing viewers into the action. His aforementioned Bay-isms of: close-ups, swirling/zooming location shots and cameras that follow flying mortars through the air (in a scene that’s recycled from “Pearl Harbor”, which made many in the theater chuckle), are all accounted for. Again, it’s an aesthetic the director is known for. It may lack subtlety, but it’s what we expect from Bay. His biggest accomplishment though is immersion, leaving his audience as confused and frustrated as the characters who are being attacked.
However, the movie fails in two areas – when it attempts humor and when its characters spout ridiculous lines that seem utterly senseless. I can understand sarcastic quips between the guys we’re following, but when one character in particular – the team’s translator, Amahl (Peyman Moaadi) is armed and thrust into the action, frightened for his life – it feels like it’s all for laughs. As if we need a bumbling comic relief to lighten up thew war zone. Well, we don’t. What’s worse, is something Tonto (another character meant to be comic relief), says to the translator, a Libyan native, “Your country has to figure this shit out,” as the dust settles and Amahl heads home. Wait, what?
Nevertheless, “13 Hours” will make the same amount of money that movies like “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor” made in previous Januarys. It’ll draw the exact same crowd. Its goal is simply to show the heroism of six highly-trained individuals who went through an incredibly intense thirteen hours and Bay meets that goal.