13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Film Review


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Film Review by Shane Larkin

Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Chuck Hogan (screenplay), Mitchell Zuckoff (book)
Stars: John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge Dale

“They’re all bad guys until they’re not”, we’re told. Troubling depictions of otherness abound in Michael Bay’s new film, freighted with a hearty dose of jingoism, but maybe not as much as you’d expect from the director of Pearl Harbor. Even as he directly references that movie with an eye-roll-inducing bomb’s eye view of a mortar’s descent, 13 Hours is actually Bay at his most restrained. It’s a frustrating, feature-length struggle between his greatest strengths as a director, utilized better here than they’ve ever been, and his glaring limitations.

Working from Chuck Hogan’s screenplay, itself adapted from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, Bay’s film dramatizes the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya from the point of view of a six-man team of security contractors working out of a nearby CIA base. They all have names like Boon and Rone and Tonto, all uniformly buff, bearded and furrow-browed and all devoted family men but dammit, something always draws them back to combat. John Krasinski is effective as our audience surrogate for the evening, Jack “I just wanna see my kids again” Silva. It’s through his eyes that we get a lay of the land and see just how underprepared and overwhelmed the team turned out to be.

Bay is content to just dramatize the details of the attack and so his approach is not overtly partisan, but not exactly apolitical either. He’s invariably taking a stance of some kind, even just by lionizing the soldiers or merely choosing not to address broader foreign policy issues, and considering the timing of this release (dropping right at the top of a US election year) it’s difficult to divorce it from political discourse altogether. But rather than comment on U.S. intervention in Libya or on the institutional failures that allowed the whole Benghazi massacre to actually happen, what we get is a ground-level, uncomplicated view of military heroics and gung-ho myth making. There’s an indictment of pencil-pushing bureaucracy in there too, but that’s par for the course with Bay.

The Libyans are, for the most part, depicted as faceless enigmas. Any attempts at humanizing them feel mishandled and shallow, but in a strange way this simplistic understanding of the situation results in one of the film’s more perverse strengths: the clammy paranoia and uncertainty felt by the main characters becomes our own, if you fall into the film’s groove. Who’s with who, and are they here to help our heroes or shoot at them; this is a nervy thread of unease that runs throughout the movie. Ever the military fetishist, Bay does an admirable job of sustaining tension and he executes his action sequences with sincere aplomb. Even his oft-criticized disregard for spatial coherence turns out to be something of a virtue, as the chaotic confusion and dreamlike carnage of the battlefield becomes remarkably palpable. The images are disorderly and scattered but they feel purposeful. Cinematographer Don Beebe lends an almost painterly quality to all the bursts of orange flame and smeary blues, echoing his work with Michael Mann and imbuing the mayhem with gauzy abstraction and tactile grit. It looks great.

Unfortunately though, the on-the-ground procedural approach only ends up highlighting the shortcomings of the script. There’s an almost video game-like structure at work here, as we move from firefight to squad interaction to firefight and back again. Bay has never been praised for his humanist qualities, and depth of character is not something you should come to expect from one of his joints, but he aims for it here anyway and ends up miring his characters in generic mawkishness and phony sentimentality. And at two hours and twenty four minutes, this begins to grate. “Downtime’s the worst; the adrenaline leaves and my mind just starts to wander”, Silva opines towards the end. I think I know how he feels.

It’s a mixed bag, but credit where credit is due. This is one of the director’s best efforts. Hamfisted, yes, and containing all the political nuance of a pendulous Transformer testicle, it’s still an intermittently thrilling war picture and in many ways better than it had any right to be.


Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies

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