This is the United States of America, and Hollywood has yet to meet a calamity that it isn’t willing to turn into a cash cow. So why would the 2012 Benghazi attack – during which local violent Libyan forces attacked two American compounds, resulting in deaths on both sides including that of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens – be any different? It wouldn’t, which is why the basic fact of the existence of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is not a shock. What is a bit of surprise, however, is the fact that Michael Bay was chosen as the steward best suited to deliver this story to the masses. The action auteur (I guess) isn’t exactly known for nuanced depictions of national distress; this is the man who brought Pearl Harbor to cinematic life. But why wait 60 years to tell such a story? Why even wait six? The story isn’t even close to being ripe, but Bay is going to tell it anyway. Maybe he’ll surprise us all.
After providing the viewer with a brief summary of the Libyan uprising, Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan introduce us to Jack Da Silva (an extra-buff John Krasinski, presumably reprising his role as Stoic Military Man from Cameron Crowe’s Aloha), a contractor brought in by his old friend Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) to assist with the security detail at a secret CIA Annex in Benghazi. Rone regularly butts heads with the chief (David Costabile), setting up the movie’s secondary conflict between the heroic (and jacked) ex-special forces musclemen and the wimpy book-smart analysts. It’s a real brains vs. brawn match-up and it’s clear from moment one that the brains are in the wrong. Fast forward five weeks as everyone is preparing for Chris Stevens’s (Matt Letscher) arrival. Rone, Jack, and the rest of the crew (portrayed by Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, and David Denman) know the visit leaves everyone open for attack, but no one cares what they have to say. So none of our main characters (“characters” is a strong word) are too surprised when the attack goes down while they are inexplicably watching Tropic Thunder. Here’s where Bay’s true interests kick in, as what follows is classic action movie fare, dotted with “why can’t I go home?” sentiments and littered with villainous anonymous actors with brown skin.
13 Hours becomes peak-Bay at this point. It honestly wouldn’t feel out of place for any of the cars in film to turn into a robot before spitting out a quippy Mark Wahlberg, all as the camera rotates 360° around them. That doesn’t happen, but we do get Bay’s patented push-ins, flares, low-dutch angles, and loving shots of beautiful male bodies being pushed to their physical limits. Any and all action movie cliches are present and accounted for, from tough guy dialogue (“I need a bag full of money and a flight to Benghazi”) to a montage of the heroes tearfully talking to their families via Skype minutes before the shit hits the fan. The active moments are kinetic and well-shot by cinematographer Dion Beebe, there are interesting acknowledgments of the surreality and horror of the situation, and there scenes of rising action that manage real tension. 13 Hours would actually be a pretty effective (if overly familiar) movie were it not for the fact that it’s adapting such a recent, real-life catastrophe.
But the Banghazi attacks did really occur, and the movie’s consideration of that truth is near-negligible. You won’t often find me in the camp of people saying “too soon,” in fact I’m often one of the first making the joke, but 13 Hours is different; it’s not that it’s too soon to make a movie about these events – it’s that this one feels disrespectful. I suppose there’s plenty of room for gallows humor in the third Transformers sequel (I mean there’s no actual humor in that movie, but in theory there is room for it), but when Pablo Schreiber as Noah Wyle as a former Army Ranger is cracking wise in the midst of all this real-life death, it comes off as rude. Especially because it’s not actually funny. And then there’s the picture’s depiction of Ambassador Stevens, which stops just short of suggesting all of the bloodshed that occurs is his fault.
Bay coasts on “non-political” political ideas like that. The buff killing machines are incredibly jingoistic (no one loves to die for their country as much as these guys do); 13 Hours makes American Sniper look subtle. These are characters out to put “the fear of God and the United States” into these Libyans, and not necessarily in that order. But there’s a distinction there between “the United States” and the US government. Costabile’s chief and the penny-pinching, blinded-by-ideals government that he seemingly represents are projected as bigger bad guys than the angry Libyans, presumably because they should know better. Specifically, these nerds should know better because the security team told them so. Which is not to say the brown characters are treated with any substantial amount of respect – at least three times in the feature someone comments on how you can’t tell “the good ones” from “the bad ones,” to the point where they just don’t care anymore. “They’re all bad guys until they’re not,” Schreiber’s Tanto tells us, and the cowardly Libyans the heroes think are on their side affirm this again and again, effectively making the audience complicit in this way of thinking. Maybe I should trust Bay when he says he made 13 Hours with no political message in mind, but if that’s true it kind of makes things worse. His accidental biases say way more about him as a human being than any intentional filmmaking choices would have (let’s not even get started with the line “I need your eyes and your ears, not your mouth” delivered to the movie’s only significant female presence).
13 Hours doesn’t totally avoid difficult ideas – Krasinski’s character tackles personal dilemmas to the extent that anyone is allowed to do more than look sweaty and muscular, and there is a surprising moment at the end during which Libyan families mourn the deaths of the sons we just watched die (and perhaps even giddily cheered along with, if you were some of the people in my theater). But Bay and Hogan just glance at these concepts, rather than actually engaging with them. They are much more interested in guns and explosions, which is unfortunate because a movie about Benghazi – or any complex conflict, really – shouldn’t just be an action movie.
13 Hours: The Secret Solders of Benghazi gets one out of five bearded Dr. John Carters: