I think I’ve accidentally begun a new tradition. Every January, I go with my brother-in-law to see a dumb action or adventure film. The past three years, I’ve seen American Sniper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Jack Reacher. This year, it’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the latest from filmmaker Michael Bay.
The Bay tropes are all here: hyper nationalism, testosterone worship, blue lens flares, slow-motion upward spinning camera, moments of cheeseball acting, and plenty of explosions and gunfire. It’s all quite over-the-top and mostly dumb. It’s a Michael Bay film, folks! But it’s also a John Krasinski film. Formerly of The Office, Krasinksi embodies an everyman charm, although he’s certainly bulked and bearded up for this film. With his winsome presence as the central character, 13 Hours has far more pathos and charm than I anticipated from a Bay military spectacle.
Based on a true story, the secret soldiers of the overly-long title are hired security for a C.I.A. intel-gathering operation in Benghazi. Cloistered in a walled compound, they protect the C.I.A. operatives from any harm, including the over-the-top C.I.A. chief who smugly berates them. These ex-military soldiers have the camaraderie that comes from the military lifestyle, a sort of shared experience regardless of previous missions or military branches. They’re also family men, and numerous scenes show them connecting with wives and children back at home in the U.S. The film spends considerable time with these men outside of combat situations as it builds to the climactic conflict. You might even call it character development. The six actors in the main roles give solid performances, with Krasinski carrying the emotional weight of the film.
When the primary action really ramps up after local Libyans invade a U.S. ambassador’s compound nearby, the result is a frenetic, confusing tour-de-force from Bay and Co. as bullets fly and mayhem ensues. Despite brief moments of a clock appearing on-screen to tell us the time–this is called 13 Hours after all–it’s very difficult to really comprehend the passage of time or a sense of place within the second act as the soldiers race to save the ambassador. Perhaps this is intentional on Bay’s part to thrust us into the chaos; regardless, it somehow works at keeping the tension level high. In the final act, the action centers entirely on the C.I.A. compound and settles into a steady rhythm: the locals attack, the soldiers shoot back, and the locals retreat…until they come back for more. Surrounded and with little chance of survival, it’s a modern-day Alamo situation.
The film (wisely) never really delves into the politics behind the Benghazi fiasco–why the Agency leader delayed the security team from their rescue attempt of the ambassador; why U.S. air strikes were never deployed despite clear calls for backup and help; why Libyans are allowed to kill U.S. diplomats and soldiers with little-to-no repercussion. Bay isn’t the filmmaker for exploring such questions. If you’re looking for political nuance or moral examination, this isn’t your film. If you’re looking for hyperkinetic escapism with a blatant pro-military agenda, you’ve found it. If you thought Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was just too subtle and nuanced, this might be what you’re looking for. I don’t really jive with these sorts of pro-war messages, but 13 Hours has less of the military hero worship found in American Sniper, and certainly not the silly romanticism of Bay’s Pearl Harbor. It’s a dumb action film. It also honors American soldiers who died while courageously protecting others. As such, it’s an admirable effort. It’s exactly what it wants and needs to be. Nothing more. Nothing less.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4172430/