“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is an effective combat docudrama in the vein of “Black Hawk Down” and “Lone Survivor.”
But what really makes it noteworthy is the man behind it: director Michael Bay, simultaneously one of our most successful (in box office terms, anyway) and most despised filmmakers.
Here he re-creates Sept. 11, 2012, when Islamic fighters stormed a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
Bay’s reputation rests on big, noisy, empty entertainments like the “Transformers” movies, which have been calibrated to a preschooler’s attention span. The prevailing attitude among cineastes is that while one cannot prove that Bay has no soul, there’s been no evidence of one in any of his films.
“13 Hours” is a major departure for Bay, a minute-by-minute dramatization of a recent (and hugely controversial) event presented with a minimum of Hollywood hokum and a real feel for the professional warriors who are its heroes.
The film takes no stand on American foreign policy in the Mideast and ignores the subsequent political fallout over how the State Department under Hillary Clinton handled the crisis. Instead it concentrates on the actions of a handful of former Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and U.S. Marines employed as CIA security contractors who risked their lives to save their fellow Americans.
The central figure is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who, faced with limited job opportunities at home, once again finds himself a security grunt for Uncle Sam. Leaving behind his wife and daughters, he’s the latest addition to a “secret” CIA operation in Benghazi, and through his eyes we get oriented to a confusing and dangerous situation.
As security chief Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) explains, the two dozen or so American analysts living in a walled intelligence compound don’t officially exist, although the Libyans would have to be idiots not to realize what’s going on.
In the wake of the fall and death of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country has fragmented politically, with various factions seizing the high-powered weaponry left behind by the collapsed government. It’s impossible to know which Libyans welcome the Americans as allies and which are Islamic extremists, at least until the shooting starts.
The film’s first act (the screenplay is by Chuck Hogan, based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction book) introduces the major players — funny/tough military veterans played by Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa and Max Martini.
These easygoing but extremely competent fighting men are usually at odds with the CIA station chief (David Costabile), a by-the-book type who represents the sort of bureaucratic outlook useless in a real crisis.
A visit to Benghazi by Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) turns sour when 40 or so militants attack the diplomatic compound where Stevens is spending the night. The security boys, stationed about a mile away in their own little fortress, defy their station chief by mounting up and riding to the rescue.
By the time they get there it’s too late to save Stevens. And after making the dangerous journey back to their own outpost they are soon surrounded by an army of angry Libyans who make up in sheer numbers for what they lack in combat smarts.
The film follows these Americans through a long night in which they repel repeated assaults. The action is furious and very effectively staged, and in the down time between firefights the characters — especially Krasinksi’s and Dale’s — hunker behind the parapets and talk about what brought them to this dangerous point in their lives.
Genuine humanity in a Michael Bay movie? Oh, it’s not enough to bog down the action, and it never descends to touchy/feely navel-gazing, but it represents an emotional honesty he has never delivered before.
The nighttime battle scenes have been expertly staged and shot with hand-held cameras, providing another layer of pseudo-documentary realism. And, remarkable for a Bay production, their intent is to give us fear, chaotic confusion and dread rather than gung-ho bloodlust.
(Even so, Bay cannot resist a bit of Hollywood visual cheese. In one of the film’s few instances of obvious CG, his camera follows a mortar round as it drops onto the American fort. It’s a copy of a shot Bay employed in “Pearl Harbor.”)
The closest “13 Hours” comes to political commentary is in its depiction of how unprepared the U.S. mission was for the deadly uprising and the slow State Department response that meant the American defenders were on their own.
Lest all this be interpreted as Muslim-bashing, Bay and Hogan go out of their way to show that many Libyan citizens helped the Americans. In particular there’s a local translator (Peyman Moaadi), a terrified non-combatant who still voluntarily accompanies the U.S. fighters on their dangerous rescue mission.
All of which makes “13 Hours” the most subtle and nuanced film of Michael Bay’s career. Who knows when we’ll be able to say that again?
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R. Time: 2:24.