I’m not exactly sure when January became the defacto month for releasing jingoist modern military movies. The past two years have seen both Lone Survivor and American Sniper drop in this time frame, filling our eyes and ears with the sights and sounds of ultra-patriotism and American supremacy. Not willing to buck the trend, 2016 brings us 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the true(ish) story of six members of a secret Benghazi-based CIA security team that fought back against the terrorist attack on September 11, 2012. I don’t usually like these kinds of movies, which abandon any attempt at subtext and complexity to spin a blindly patriotic tale of how great America is compared to the rest of the world. I made my thoughts on American Sniper pretty clear (it’s crap) and I think while Lone Survivor tried to play things a little more nuanced, it suffers from a lot of the same problems as Clint Eastwood’s “‘Merica, Fuck Yeah” tribute to Chris Kyle.
So when I heard that the filmmaker in charge of bringing this politically charged, confusing mess of a situation was Michael “Explosions are my favorite” Bay, I was a bit worried. Bay wears his political opinions on his sleeve and isn’t exactly known for his nuanced storytelling, preferring instead to throw bullets and explosions at us as fast as humanly possible (and sometimes faster). Imagine my surprise when 13 Hours turned out to be a well constructed, nuanced film much more interested in showing the heroics of the six men under fire than prop up American exceptionalism. 13 Hours isn’t just a good Michael Bay movie, it might just be the best modern military film since Black Hawk Down.
Full disclosure, I don’t consider myself an expert of the events of September 11, 2012, so if you’re looking for a review that compares what actually happened to the events depicted in the film, you should look elsewhere. I’m aware of the general story, and I have no doubt the movie took dramatic liberties because…well, it’s a movie. The story Michael Bay has chosen to tell centers on the six CIA security team members that found themselves in the middle of a terrorist attack. The movie opens on our main character, CIA contractor Jack Silva (John Krasinski) arriving in Benghazi. He joins up with the other five members of his team led by Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods (James Badge Dale). The CIA has set up a secret base, unknown to the residents of the town as well as some of our own government and these six contractors have been hired to defend it. The movie jumps around a bit, showing the individuals in charge of protecting the official American consulate in the city and the American Ambassador himself, but as the terrorist attack begins and all shit breaks loose we mostly stick close to these six men. The movie follows the events of this day and the thirteen hours they were forced to fight until they were successfully exfiltrated from the city. Keeping the scale small was a good idea, it allows us to focus on the events and men of the day rather than get bogged down into the political and ideological quagmire that the day represents.
John Krasinski is okay in the lead role. When I heard that the goofy guy from The Office was cast as a badass former Navy SEAL I had my doubts, but Krasinski plays Silva well. He bulked up for the role and is absolutely cut (a fact that Bay’s camera definitely doesn’t miss), coming off as a convincing soldier. The problem is, he’s not a very convincing person. In 13 Hours, Silva is a man with a family waiting at home. He’s struggling with an unsuccessful career as an insurance salesman and a normal life. Silva keeps accepting these dangerous jobs overseas despite his desires to return home to his family. He’s a man torn between two lives. Unfortunately Krasinski doesn’t really convey this. He spends most of the movie emotionless and stoic; saying very little and expressing even less. I can see what the actor is trying to do here, portraying Silva as a man who keeps his emotions really close to his chest, but I don’t think it works. On the flip side is James Badge Dale’s Rone, a character who is also torn between two worlds. Rone, however, is much further along than Silva. His marriage has ended and someone else is now raising his child. Dale is doing great work here channeling the same kind of energy and emotion that John Krasinski is, but he’s doing a much better job at it. The rest of the cast are your standard Michael Bay soldiers. Guys who play off each other really well; making jokes, and spouting off some truly cheesy one liners, all believable men who seem good at their jobs. Which is lucky, because the events of that day demanded them to be so.
The most surprising thing about 13 Hours is that Michael Bay has toned down his usual style. Bay likes to stuff the frame with action, throwing so many explosions, dust, gunshots, corpses, and moving pieces in one shot and cutting so abruptly and often that it’s sometimes hard to follow exactly what is going on. This ‘Bayhem’, while normally exhausting and boring to watch, actually works really well here. The events of the Benghazi terrorist attack were hectic. Our men didn’t know which people were with them and which against. They were walking around hundreds of Libyans with guns, some of them shooting each other, some of them wanting to kill Americans (and some both). It was a crazy, confusing night and Bay films it crazy and confusingly. But more than that, Bay chooses to tone down the Bayhem here a little. It’s over the top, sure. There are explosions and sharp cuts. There’s a scene in which the camera tracks a mortar shell from the point of fire til it lands on its target, but it’s less over the top than normal. The filmmaker’s movies usually relish in the violence and explosions, in order to show how badass our characters are. 13 Hours does this less. I’m not sure what the reason for this, but my guess would be that Bay made this directorial decision out of respect for the real life people involved in this incident. I’m glad he did. The action in the film is hectic, scary, and confusing, but also gripping.
It is impossible to talk about this movie without at least touching on the politics of the film and the event behind it. Michael Bay is not a nuanced filmmaker when it comes to his love of America. Layering the red, white, and blue of our flag in almost every scene he can, Bay constantly makes it clear that he loves his country. However, if you pay attention, you realize that while Bay loves Americans, he frequently derides the government behind them. In each of his movies, the heroes are the common everyday man. The deepwater drill team in Armageddon. The street cops in Bad Boys. The soldiers in The Rock and Transformers. In contrast the government in these films is frequently portrayed as useless, incompetent buffoons, failing to help out our heroes or sometimes even actively hurting them. The same is true with 13 Hours. Our heroes are the individuals on the ground fighting. The American government is depicted as useless and out of touch, unwilling to make the call to assist those in the consulate. Unwilling or unable to get help to the people trapped inside the CIA compound when their lives are at risk. You can of course interpret this as you will. I suspect Republicans will walk out of this movie blaming everything on Hillary Clinton, but don’t see any particular attack at a certain administration. Neither Hillary nor Obama are mentioned once in this film. Rather, once again I see Bay making a statement against government in general. The soldiers are our heroes, and the government is the group that’s putting them into harm’s way and then failing to do what is necessary to keep them safe. These are Michael Bay’s politics and he puts them on display here.
13 Hours is a fun, violent film that accomplishes what it sets out to do: honor the six men who bravely defended American lives during a terrorist attack. It doesn’t shove blind pro-American jingoism down the viewer’s throat, nor attempt to over-politicize the event. It keeps the focus where it should be: on our characters. It takes time to show the enemy as people too, and doesn’t relish in the violence committed by and against them. Despite his bad reputation, Michael Bay has skills as a director, and he’s created a entertaining, effective film here.