Somewhere along the campaign trail, Paramount decided to give Michael Bay’s new Benghazi chronicle a relatively quiet mid-January dump-off among the likes of Universal’s “Ride Along 2” and next week’s “Dirty Grandpa” from Lionsgate. I ask: If the studio was so frugal about marketing because they’re afraid the film is going to alienate Clinton supporters—a sizable demographic–then why agree to distribute the damn thing in the first place? Or maybe it was just a diabolical scheme to stir things up two days before a Democratic Primary debate.
Seriously though, my skepticism didn’t stem from politics—something the film leaves out altogether—but from the guy behind the camera. The architect of not one, not two, but FIVE “Transformers” movies (if you include the upcoming installment) handling a controversial combat bio-pic sounds crazier than Dennis Dugan directing Adam Sandler in a remake of “The Ten Commandments”.
But here’s the thing: it turns out that Bay can direct the hell out of a war picture. He might not be Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) or Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”), but if I’d gone into the theater blind instead of with apprehension, I’d have guessed that either of those two were responsible for “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” before the director of “Bad Boys 2”. This is not a “Michael Bay” movie–probably the biggest compliment one could pay him.
“13 Hours” is a tough, tactical war flick with only requisite character backstory, revolving around a team of guys who all have families to get home to. Based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, the movie confidently states itself to be a true story.
Bearing some similarity (though superior) to Peter Berg’s Marcus Luttrell account “Lone Survivor”, and more consistently engaging than Eastwood’s “American Sniper”, Bay’s movie goes and goes and goes, and then when things really get dicey, it’s a miracle that any of them made it back at all. Like the under-appreciated “Act of Valor”, which starred real active duty Navy SEALs, “13 Hours” is a heavily visceral experience, and only a handful of times does Bay’s penchant for unnecessarily dramatic slow-mo and rapid-fire cutting get the better of him. Even the car chases feel more like Michael Mann than Michael Bay–in no small part, I’m sure, due to DP Dion Beebe, who shot Mann’s “Miami Vice” and “Collateral”.
In 2012 Benghazi, amidst the civil unrest in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall, a handful of ex-Special Forces guys (John Krasinski, James Badge Dale and Pablo Schreiber are the primary focus, with modest roles for Max Martini and David Denman), now contractors for a CIA Global Response Team, are assigned to a security detail for some stuffy diplomatic types. Nearby, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) is housed at a temporary embassy during his campaign to unite the city against violent extremist groups. The compound is scantily outfitted in the event of a security breach, closer to Club Med than a stronghold .
On the eve of 9/11, the outpost comes under siege, and the response team deploys from their adjacent super-secret barracks in an extraction effort against the orders of bitchy Company Chief (David Constable), only to find that Stevens has already been killed. A chaotic firefight ensues, and it’s almost impossible for them to discern the friendlies from the bad guys, as the team retreats back to their fortress to take on waves of heavily armed hostiles as they converge on the compound. The second hour of the film is a non-stop barrage of gun and mortar fire, ricocheting RPGs and explosions that leaves little time to fret about the political fallout to follow.
Characters are occasionally called on to speak in jingoistic clichés that screenwriter Chuck Hogan forces down our throats, as if we aren’t aware that American lives are at stake, or that Benghazi would feel the almighty wrath of the United States military if only they’d call in that damn air strike. And forget about the destitute Libyans who are on the righteous side of the fight—they, too get slaughtered in droves.
The crew find themselves perched on rooftops waiting for the next onslaught to come, like a contemporary version of the Alamo. David Denman’s character compares their situation to a horror movie, as the night sky becomes illuminated by tracer rounds and explosions, the shadows of approaching soldiers fitfully splayed across the ground, with no help in sight. Will the approaching convoy be carrying reinforcements or a bus-sized car bomb? It’s rarely the former.
A few poorly placed one-liners (“Welcome to Benghazi” instead of “Welcome to The Rock” and other recycled Bay-isms) are a small price to pay for such an intense, surprisingly well-orchestrated re-enactment. “13 Hours” is a top-notch action movie with superb cinematography and choreography, and the sound design is crisp and unusually distinctive, a virtual orchestra of ordnance rather than just a cacophonous assault on the eardrums. And as far as compelling heroes go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than James Badge Dale and John Krasinski, who brings the emotion but also looks very convincing holding an M4.
— M. Parsons