Will it ever be possible to look back at what happened in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 without viewing the situation through a purely political lens? It's the most prominent recent example of a heartbreaking tragedy being turned into a political football, as conservatives have attempted to use the tragedy to paint Hillary Clinton (who was Secretary of State at the time) as a heartless killer and liberals have dismissed the genuine concerns the situation raises.
Given the hot-button nature of the Benghazi conversation, it's no surprise that many viewed the January 2016 release of Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi as a political move designed to damage Mrs. Clinton's reputation during the primary season. However, Bay has insisted that his film isn't intended as a political statement, and that he simply wants to take a serious, detailed look at the event that examines the story from every angle. I believe him. The film never mentions Clinton by name, and despite the fact that some conservative pundits have attempted to promote it as a propaganda tool, you have to bring quite a bit of baggage to the table to read it as a direct attack on her actions. It's political to roughly the same degree that Zero Dark Thirty was political: the fact that certain people will be inclined to read it a certain way doesn't really mean much when it comes to what's actually on the screen.
The bigger question with 13 Hours isn't whether Michael Bay is being serious, but whether he's capable of being serious convincingly. Over the past couple of decades, Bay has established himself as one of Hollywood's most prominent purveyors of mindless (albeit occasionally entertaining) junk (at this point, it seems as if the crude, bombastic Transformers movies will be his defining legacy). His previous attempt at making a “serious” film was Pearl Harbor, an overlong melodrama that plays like an unintentionally hilarious caricature of “prestige” filmmaking. Would Bay be able to restrain his own instincts enough to prevent 13 Hours from turning into an action-packed cartoon? Well... yes and no.
The film centers on six private contractors who are working with the CIA's Global Response Staff in Benghazi: Jack Silva (John Krasinski, The Office), Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale, The Pacific), Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini, Saving Private Ryan), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schrieber, Lords of Dogtown), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa, Nurse Jackie) and Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman, After Earth). All of these men are ex-military, and their job is an exceptionally dangerous one. Tensions are running high in the city (the tyrannical Muammar Gaddafi had been killed less than a year earlier), and many Libyans in the area still have a hostile view of the Americans. As a handful of early scenes demonstrate, an ordinary trip through the city can turn into a potentially deadly situation at any moment.
Things really get serious shortly after ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher, Her) – an upbeat idealist who seems optimistic about his chances of changing hearts and minds – arrives in the city. A group of Islamic militants attack the diplomatic compound where Stevens is staying, and the officers begin to prepare themselves for a rescue mission. However, the head CIA official – a man only known as “Bob” (David Constabile, Breaking Bad) – orders the men to stay in their vehicles and wait. Stevens and Foreign Service officer Sean Smith (Christopher Dingil, Agora) will be killed, and the soldiers will be forced to endure a long, hellish night of violence.
Bay's direction is more restrained than usual, but still perhaps a bit more melodramatic than necessary: he can't resist the opportunity to stick a wind-blown American flag into every other scene, and the early scenes are full of the sort of low-angle “hero shots” he adores. Once the battle gets underway, he shifts into frenzied shaky-cam mode, effectively capturing the nightmarish chaos of the evening (“I feel like I'm in a f---in' horror movie,” one character says) despite a few moments that feel a little messy. For better or worse, a lot of what Bay serves up feels like something from a big-screen adaptation of a Call of Duty game, complete with bloody, first person shooter-esque headshots presented through a rifle scope. The low point is a gimmicky shot presented from the point-of-view of a bomb, turning what should be a horrifying moment into an “isn't this cool?” directorial flourish (it doesn't help that Bay immediately follows that shot with a shameless bit of emotional manipulation).
Still, there are some potent moments here. This is a thoroughly-researched, detail-oriented film, and you can tell that Bay is committed to getting the specifics right even if he gets a little (and sometimes more than a little) carried away with the presentation. As the hours tick on and the men struggle to survive, we begin to see a fairly damning portrait of a severe, troubling communication breakdown between various pieces of the U.S. Government. The film isn't particularly interested in pointing fingers (only pinning direct blame on “Bob,” a thinly-drawn caricature who refers to our All-American heroes as “hired help” and gets condescending lines like, “We've got the brightest minds from Harvard and Yale working on this”) but it persuasively makes the case that this scenario was preventable.
The performances are better than average for a Bay film, too. The director smartly opted to avoid big names and go for a less recognizable cast, which makes it easier for us to see these characters as a bunch of ordinary soldiers trapped in an extraordinary situation. Admittedly, the character work isn't particularly complex, but everyone is persuasive. The strongest work comes from Krasinski and Dale, both of whom have a knack for underplaying scenes that other actors might turn into something more overheated. Krasinksi has some particularly good moments during the third act, successfully embodying the film's combination of outrage and mournfulness.
As for the Libyans, well... they're more props than characters, but Bay at least has the decency to stress the point that the terrorists who launched the attack that night didn't represent the feelings of the entire population. Even so, it's a little disappointing that the film doesn't really grant any of the Libyan characters – terrorists, allies or bystanders – even a little bit of depth. It regards them as an enigma; mysterious, unknowable people who may or may not be friendly. It's certainly less interested than Chris Stevens was in understanding them (indeed, the most curious thing about the film is the fairly dismissive view it seems to have of Stevens). For all of Bay's efforts to deliver a comprehensive take on this story, 13 Hours still feels a little too limited.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Year: 2016