13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
The more I come to think about it, it feels like I more tolerate the film career of Michael Bay than truly enjoy it. Here’s a filmmaker from whom I’ve seen every movie, and yet, there are very few that I genuinely enjoy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen either “Bad Boys” film, although on first viewing I liked the 1995 original and didn’t like the 2003 sequel, but the rest of his career seems to have been gradually getting less enjoyable to me. I love “The Rock” unreservedly, enjoy “The Island,” and like more of the first and third “Transformers” films than I should probably admit, but every other film of his- “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction”- is too loud, too offensively conceived, too long and too idiotic to really get any enjoyment out of. His 2013 film, “Pain & Gain,” is on the fence of those extremes, because on the one hand it is far less pretentious and self-important than just about any film he’s made since “The Rock” (plus, it has great performances by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie), but it also has a lot of the hallmarks that make up the worst of Bay’s cinema. When it was announced that he would be making a film about the controversial 2012 attack on a US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, it goes without saying that I would be nervous. That feeling was not unwarranted.
Let’s recap what happened on that fateful day in 2012. On the eleventh anniversary of September 11, Libyans gathered outside of a US outpost in Benghazi, where the US Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, had been staying. Ever since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi the year before, Libya, though touted as having the opportunity for a democratic society for the first time in 40-plus years, destabilized into a power structure between opposing forces fighting for power and the weapons in Gaddafi’s arsenal, which are sold on the black market. Unfortunately, budget cuts made security almost non-existent at Embassies worldwide, so Stevens only had a handful of Americans, and several local factions, protecting him. The Americans including private contractors (almost all with military backgrounds) whom the CIA hired as protection for dealings with local business people, or last responders in the case of an attack. When the seeming protests outside of the outpost turned into a terror attack, putting Stevens and his security in grave danger, six of these contractors (Jack Silva, Tyrone Woods, Kris Paronto, Dave Benton, John Tiegen and Mark Geist) are itching to leave the secret CIA annex they are stationed at a mile away, but their CIA chief tells them to hold off, a decision that will not only result in the death of Stevens by smoke inhalation, but three others when the fighting at the outpost leads to a standoff at the annex, as they wait for assistance that comes too late.
Alright, now let’s get this out of the way- though based on a book written by Mitchell Zuckoff (with the participation of five survivors of the tragedy), the way things unfold in “13 Hours” does not completely jibe with the findings of many Congressional investigations into what happened that day (especially a “stand down” order dramatized in the film, which has been debunked in those investigations). The incident has become a political firestorm that conservatives have used to try and discredit and destroy then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions, and though Michael Bay claims the film was not made for political reasons, the timing of it’s release (which admittedly coincides with the release of other military hit films “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper”) so close to the first presidential primaries is certainly suspicious on those grounds. Having said that, I must credit Bay for making a largely apolitical military thriller out of Chuck Hogan’s screenplay, and focusing more on the soldiers-turned-contractors who found themselves in a shit storm, and acted heroically and valiantly in response to extraordinary circumstances. Apparently, Bay wanted to make both “Black Hawk Down” and “Lone Survivor,” other films about tragic military operations that needlessly put soldiers in untenable situations, in the past before other filmmakers (Ridley Scott and Peter Berg, respectively) made them instead, and Bay found his opportunity to shine a light on such a situation in “13 Hours.” The biggest concern as a person who’s seen Bay’s previous films is, would he be up to the task?
Unfortunately, the answer to that is a resounding “no.” I’m not going to rate the film on the level that I have “Armageddon” or the latest “Transformers” film (as some critics seem to do reflexively with Bay films), because it’s not THAT bad, but like his misguided “Pearl Harbor,” it’s far from the level of the best military and war films of the modern era. Bay unquestionably made the film with the best of intentions, but still gave into his worst instincts as a filmmaker. At 144 minutes, it’s too long, with too many scenes that go on forever (two hours feels like it would have been a great sweet spot for this film’s running time). Although it’s shot with dynamic visuals by cinematographer Dion Beebe, it’s also cut with reckless abandon by Pietro Scalia (a deserving Oscar winner for, oddly enough, “Black Hawk Down”) and Calvin Wimmer that makes the action almost indecipherable to follow and logic of the story as it unfolds an afterthought. The end result is another Bay exercise in “empty thrills,” which can be fine for a big, loud movie about alien robots who transform into transportation or oil drillers going to an asteroid to save Earth, but isn’t good when you’re dealing with real people who were put in harm’s way, and in four cases, lost their lives in a clusterfuck of a situation. He and the actors (including John Krasinski as Silva, James Badge Dale as Woods, Pablo Schreiber as Paronto and Max Martini as Geist) do their best to put emotional beats into the story through humanizing moments with the characters, but it feels like cliched storytelling rather than real moments real people had in their lives. And though the staging of the action is typically terrific from Bay, it feels like something out of a video game than a real combat situation, which again, is fine for a “Transformers” or “The Island,” but makes the action feel removed from reality too much to be emotionally invested in. You want to see a film like this done right? “Black Hawk Down” is arguably as right as one can get, although “American Sniper,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers” are good examples of how to emotionally invest audience in military situations, as well. The worst version of “13 Hours” would have been simple conservative propaganda that used the tragedy of Benghazi to score political points. Thankfully, Bay avoids such statements, but that doesn’t make the film he ended up giving us that much better.