Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie is predictably terrible; tin-eared, hyper-masculine, loud as can be, excessively brutal, slyly jingoistic and politically tone-deaf. A protracted action film if there ever was one, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi exploits Bay’s worst sensibilities as a director; it showcases his exploitative side, one not in control of tone or mood, blind to any sense of urgency, bombastically working the audience’s patriotic bone until it’s liable to snap. A more preening, hyper-masculine war movie, there may not have been in the 21st century. We’ve seen war as hell a million times. This is war as hoorah and pantie raids.
One of the more major offenses is that 13 Hours feels about 13 hours long. Bay’s self-aggrandizing exploitation of the true story of the special ops forces on the ground in Libya during that fated attack could easily be in the running for worst edited war movie of all time. There’s no sense of propulsion, no sound sense of place, no definable act structure. It’s just wave after wave of tracer fire and exploding limbs. To say that it’s the equivalent of watching someone else play Call of Duty would be to overcredit Bay’s work. At least Call of Duty can be exciting on occasion.
That Bay expresses almost no interest in getting to the why of the events – and basically limits the audience’s tacit understanding of the sociopolitical stew of 2012 Libya to a 30-second text recap – doesn’t show a man making an apolitical film so much as it reveals a man not intellectually able to engage in the shadow politics involved. As such, interactions between parties are limited to hard stares with turban-wearing, Allah-praising brown people. Which around the one hour mark turns into shootouts with turban-wearing, Allah-praising brown people. And one guy wearing a red Adidas track suit. Because product placement! And much like those brave men who fought for the lives of their countrymen, Bay’s adaptation becomes a litmus test for how much senseless gunfire you’re willing to withstand before you mentally deteriorate into fetal position.
And yes, I can already hear the arguments from the other side claiming that Bay’s slack-jawed edit was an attempt to ape the utter turmoil of the impossible taxing situation that reared its head that fated night. Or that he was trying to see the events through the eyes of the six member security force team and through their eyes only. As if we ought to grant him clemency for displaying events in such a one-sided, context-deprived manner. But while those in the midst of the Benghazi attacks may not have been privy to the substance of the attacks and could only see the events transpiring from one angle, holed up in a fast crumbling country, a filmmaker is not limited to such constraints. He has the benefit of foresight; the wisdom of context; the framework of realpolitik. Bay takes none of this into consideration though and just has white dudes and brown dudes unloading into each other for 144 minutes. It’s masturbatory. And gross.
At the beginning of the film I told Seattle PI’s own Tim Hall that I bet the movie would be sandwiched with shots of American flags. I’ll admit, I was only half right. The film instead starts with a recap of the developing situation in Libya, a ploy to get the ’splainin’ out the way so Bay can quickly lay the groundwork for the September 11, 2012 attack. It does however end with a shot of a tattered, bullet carved stars and stripes floating in a pool littered with other battle debris. How thematic. At least Bay credits his detractors with such blatantly hacky symbolism. The derided director is just as shameless about those “Michael Bay’s a sexist” claims, seeing that the only women to feature in his retelling look straight off the runway and are kept to looking pretty with their mouths shut.
What 13 Hours gets mostly right is the casting, flaunting a bunch of “T.V.” actors who feel right at home on the big screen. Rocking a spiffy beard, John Krasinski (Jim Halpert from The Office) proves an preternatural capacity for leading an action movie. He feels comfortable evoking both violence and emotion and works as well as any other hero figure in the movie. His is perhaps the only character who’s more than a fleshbound action figure, thanks to some boilerplate family flashbacks. As if the stakes aren’t high enough already.
I’d like to make clear that I have no objection to a character very much in harm’s way having the emotional fulcrum of “doing the right thing for the greater good” vs. “doing the right thing for your own family” in-and-of-itself but it’s mishandled by Bay to the point of sheer exploitation. Case and point: when one character loses his life in a mortar blast, Bay hones in on a picture of the lost man’s family that had been ejected from his body armor during the blast, fluttering through the wind in the most manipulative way imaginable. His emotional profiteering is borderline disgusting.
The supporting cast, including frequent character actor James Badge Dale, Pablo Scheriber (Orange is the New Black’s Pornstache himself), Jim Office’s nemesis David Denman, Dominic Fumusa (Nurse Jackie, Law & Order: SVU) and Max Martini (the SEAL Commander from Captain Phillips), each handle their material as warranted by the script, giving it as much juice as it’ll take. Unfortunately, they’re never more than just weapons wranglers; an amalgam of the guns they use and the “cool” kills they notch into their belts. We get to know their faces but I was hard pressed to remember a single name throughout the entire 13 hour affair. Because when it comes down to it, they’re not treated like characters. They’re treated like plastic. Moldable and disposable.
CONCLUSION: An offense to good taste and good war cinema, ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Bengazhi’ is a shameless exploitation of recent history. Michael Bay has tactless cracks at action beating out any emotional or intellectual center in his shoddily edited Libyan ‘boots on the ground’ flick. Even in the aftermath of the fetid ‘Transformer’ series, it’s one of his worst films.