Politics will likely play a large role in how audiences respond to Michael Bay’s latest action adventure film “13 Hours” because with a subtitle like “The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” it’s going to prove nearly impossible to check preconceived notions at the door.
There’s no politicians in “13 Hours” – from President Barack Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all the way on down – as Bay focuses on a procedural day by day, minute by minute account of the fateful attack by Libyan insurgents on a U.S. consulate housing Ambassador Chris Stevens and a small State Department detail on Sept. 11, 2012.
Most of the harrowing account – taken from the 2014 novel “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” – focuses on six military veterans working as CIA security contractors (known as the Global Response Staff or GRS in the film) at a secret annex less than a mile from the consulate.
To Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan, who the individual members of the GRS team are as people is wholly secondary to what they did in the days leading up to and during the Libyan assault on first the compound and later on the CIA annex.
In this effort, Bay casts a ragtag group of secondary actors who, in the heat of battle, looks nearly identical, save for an African American member of the State Department’s security detail played by Demetrius Grosse and “The Office” star John Krasinski.
Where as patriotic military films released in the last few years have relied on box office heavyweights to carry the bulk of the load – Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper” and Mark Wahlberg in “Lone Survivor” – “13 Hours” has the nuts and bolts story of what happened in Benghazi take center stage, trumping character development or storyline.
The film’s battle sequences are especially authentic thanks to both Bay’s tremendous finesse with handling high-octane action movies and three of the actual CIA security contractors – John “Tig” Tiegen, Mark “Oz” Geist and Kristian “Tanto” Paronto” – serving as special consultants working with the actors during shooting.
“13 Hours” opts for style over substance at every turn, with a visually dynamic, seemingly endless montage of wartime violence that many viewers would find exhilarating if the events were simply fiction. There’s a constant state of surrealism that leaves audiences thinking “How did this happen?” that makes the whole story feel false except for the fact that we all know it to be a largely truthful account based on dozens of reports from boots on the ground and analysts at home.
The frantic nature of the action – and relative obscurity of most of the actors and extras playing combatants on both sides of the battle – prevents viewers from orienting themselves within the fray for much of any initial viewing of the film. Bay jumps from battle location to battle location with such frequency that getting any semblance of how the combat is progressing or where events are occurring in the context geographically proves incredibly difficult.
Audience members will likely find themselves emotionally latching on to Krasinski, the most recognizable of any of the film’s stars, like a guiding star to navigate in the blood, guts and darkness of “13 Hours.” He offers as compelling a performance as you’re likely to find in a Michael Bay film, given how paint-by-numbers the script feels and how little attention is paid to offering any more than a bare bones profile of the soldiers involved.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, “13 Hours” wears on viewers in the latter stages of battle as it’s easy to feel a similar mental and emotional toll to what the soldiers experienced witnessing the initial attack on the U.S. consulate and having to idly stand by and watch.
The biggest flaw within the film lies in the editing bay, where sequences within “13 Hours” could have been better organized and/or tightened to improve the viewing experience. Sitting in the theater, the film feels about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, especially in the days prior to the attack.
Unlike “Zero Dark Thirty,” where the search to find Osama bin Laden is as important (if not more so) to the success of that film than the actual mission to kill the Al Queda terrorist leader, the Benghazi attacks are more important to both Bay as director and the audiences watching the film.
Despite its flaws, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” signifies an upward trend for Bay, the once successful director of action smash hits like “The Rock” and “Bad Boys” lambasting in overplayed, poorly made “Transformers” sequel fodder. The less he recycles his own films and finds new and original ways to attack the action genre, the better off we as audience members are.
Setting aside right and left wing divisiveness, audience members who check their personal politics at the door will find “13 Hours” to be a riveting and harrowing portrayal of one of America’s most tragic and yet heroic moments this century.
It isn’t about the politics, it’s about what happened on the ground. Through that lens, Bay and his team get things right and honor the memory of those who served and those we lost.