In the last decade, Michael Bay has only directed one film that didn’t have the word Transformers in its title. In the years before he became obsessed with turning toys into movies, he was the go-to guy for movies that needed excessive explosions and gunfire. While it's not perfect by any means, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a return to Michael Bay doing what he does best. Having people blow stuff up and look cool doing it.
When I heard Bay was going to make a movie that would deal with the tragedy that took place in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, I was equal parts curious and nervous. The only time that Bay had ever dealt with a real event previously was in 2001’s less-than-stellar Pearl Harbor. What’s more, the events of the film are still a political hotbed, making it all but inevitable that this movie will become just one more thing for the politically divisive crowd to fight over. Prepared for the worst with 13 Hours, I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed it.
The movie opens with a brief summary of the events that turned Libya from a nation under the rule of despot Muammar Gaddafi into a nation in charge of its own destiny. Unfortunately, this transition was far from clean, leaving the country in upheaval. We are then introduced to our primary character of Jack Silva (John Krasinski) arriving in Benghazi. He’s a former military man, now independent contractor on a short term contract to help provide security for a covert CIA location and a nearby American diplomatic post. Silva is one of six men at the post. The rest of the team consists of Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris 'Tanto' Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave 'Boon' Benton (David Denman) John 'Tig' Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark 'Oz' Geist (Max Martini). Each one is a former Navy SEAL or Army Spec. Ops. soldier. They're the best in the world at what they do (and are classic Bay archetypes).
These also are the men who co-wrote the book on which 13 Hours is based. As such, each one of them is presented as both a perfect soldier and a loving family man. Maybe it’s true that these six men knew exactly what to do at every moment when nobody else could do anything right. But as a movie that’s supposed to be based on a real event, they seem too perfect. Nobody is flawed, nobody makes a mistake at any point. At the same time, each actor is able to bring some degree of humanity to their character so that they are relatable, and you do end up caring about them. Krasinski is absolutely the standout here. I have only a passing familiarity with his time on The Office. Seeing him in this role might be a shock to some who are in a similar boat, but he looks like a natural soldier on screen here.
The plot advances once U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens arrives and insists on staying at a less-secure diplomatic post (as opposed to the safer CIA location). Stevens is a “true believer” who is trying to do everything he can to help the nation of Libya get on its feet. The worst fears of our band of soldiers come true, however, when an assault begins on the compound and the ambassador finds himself in danger.
While it would be nice to be able to review a movie in a vacuum, that simply isn’t possible. Politics play a role in the story, although, to be fair, the movie does its best to keep things as even as possible. Nobody mentions Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama by name at any point. Instead, the villain here is bureaucracy, as personified by a CIA station chief who is such a caricature they don’t even bother to give him a last name. He’s the one who orders the team to stand down when they want to go in because it goes against protocol. The team agrees until a call comes over the radio telling them that if they don’t come now, everybody will die. The CIA chief (David Constable) still orders the team to stand down. If you followed the news at the time, you know they decide to disobey the order.
What follows, from that moment, is the 13 Hours of the title, abbreviated to movie length, as they attempt to rescue those at the embassy, and then keep themselves alive until help arrives to get them out. I’d forgotten how long it had been since I’d seen Michael Bay direct action and he’s much better at the job when he directs people instead of CGI robots. The action is intense and well shot.
While we know much more now about what happened that night, these men did not, and so the causes are barely touched on. This could be a positive or a negative, depending on your perspective, and on what you hope to get out of 13 Hours. One throwaway line of dialogue implies who is responsible for the attack, while another mentions the early reports that came out in then States. These are minor details in the story, though, as what’s important to the characters is simply getting their job done in the moment. At the same time, you may find yourself wondering who exactly our heroes are fighting. The heroes never ask this question themselves (which makes sense, in context).
As such, we jump headlong with them on this ride knowing as much as they do about what’s going on. This makes one of the most overused tropes of modern action movies, the “shaky cam,” actually useful. It’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on with the camera jumping around, but then, that’s exactly the point here. It would have been even more effective if the shaky cam was left out during earlier scenes when it wasn’t needed.
It’s a shame that 13 Hours likely is going to be swept up in politics, because one side is going to make the film out to be much more than it is while the other is going to try and make it out to be worthless. The truth, as is usually the case, is someplace in between. 13 Hours is a perfectly serviceable action movie that’s worth seeing, if that's the kind of movie you like to watch.