I had plenty of interest in seeing 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi due to auteur Michael Bay’s involvement. I seem to have to keep finding myself saying ‘auteur Michael Bay’, as the man is an artist with a distinct voice, whether you like it or not. Fortunately, while Bay’s intent to represent his county in the best way possible has its issues, it still stands strong as a fine piece of action filmmaking for those who crave BAYhem.
Structured as a dramatized retelling of true events, the film is set in Benghazi, Libya and follows a team of CIA security contractors made up of military veterans who served with the Navy SEALS, Marine Force Recon and Army Special Forces. A good amount of the film does what it can to set up what these guys are essentially prepared for, only to turn into a series of extended action beats that chronicle the 2012 Benghazi attack.
The cast of tough guys includes Jim and Roy from The Office (John Krasinski and David Denman), generally slim character actor James Badge Dale, Pornstache from Orange Is The New Black (Pablo Schreiber), Nurse Jackie’s Dominic Fumusa, and the genuinely intimidating Max Martini. Breaking Bad’s David Costabile also gets in on the fun as the alternately stern and nebbish Chief of the CIA Annex. There’s even a role for Peyman Moaadi, the star of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation.
All this is to say the cast is made up of a good group of actors, which is actually pretty typical for any Bay film. Say what you will about his films, but the man works with great casting directors to get a quality bunch of folks to be involved in whatever ridiculousness he has up his sleeves. Fortunately, 13 Hours is the kind of R-rated war film not burdened with Bay’s sense of humor that amounts for the wackiness in his Transformers films, among others.
Stripped of most of Bay’s worst elements, 13 Hours still runs into the general issue of feeling overlong, but does make great use of everything that makes a visceral action-thriller. Shooting largely in Malta to double for Benghazi, Bay and his team do not underwhelm when it comes to finding some truly beautiful shots of the land and continually upping the ante when it comes to intense firefights. Basically, when it comes to pure action, Bay delivers as well as you would expect him to and it has all the more weight, given that we are following humans and not larger-than-life robots.
Of course, there is also the matter of how this film handles its agenda and whatever additional depth it may be going for. Bay has attempted to promote the idea that his film is apolitical and while that may have been his intent, the director’s instincts and understandings are obviously going to connect with what he puts on screen. To be fair, while in no way subtle (this is Michael ‘Boom Boom’ Bay we’re talking about), the attempts at honoring the brave men by showing their heroic actions and dismissing everyone else feels less problematic than in past films.
Early year military film releases have become something of a staple over the past few years. 13 Hours is no Zero Dark Thirty, but does surpass films like Lone Survivor, which hits too hard on the martyrdom angle, and American Sniper, which had too narrow a focus and dealt too superficially with its moral issues. That isn’t to say Bay’s film stays clear of jingoistic notions or handles thematic depth more efficiently, but it does feel more confident in presenting a situation without rubbing one’s face too hard in political subtext (these thoughts may vary, depending on the viewer).
No, none of the characters are very deep and you can see the film leaning against the CIA players who are all shown to have glasses and want to deal with things by way of asking questions before shooting and other attempts at foreign policy. This is not to say the film’s heroes were not doing what was necessary, but they are all essentially different shades of the same character type who exist in a world where they are above everyone else because of how determined they are to act with valor and bullets.
Fortunately, Chuck Hogan’s script finds the time to make things as fair as can be determined when it comes to Bay, in addition to allowing for some actual good reflections from the main cast. Of course, this is a flashy military thriller that allows Bay to use all the tools at his disposal to deliver on excitement and explosions, so the fact that he is held in some form of check based on both the screenplay and a general stance of honoring the men he respects helps the overall results.
While I generally find myself defending Michael Bay, I would say I tried to remain reserved about my anticipation for 13 Hours. So it was with a good amount of joy that I found myself surprised by how effective it all was. 13 Hours has generally good acting and a lot more going on than some may think. Whether or not people agree with it, Bay has made an explosive and visceral action film that is well worth seeing on a big screen.