REVIEW: “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

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Call me paranoid. Call me a cynic. But something about ‘Michael Bay does Benghazi’ never sounded right. While the subject interested me and the trailer looked pretty exciting, that small tinge of doubt has lingered in the back of my mind. After all we are talking about the purveyor of the relentlessly dopey Transformers films. I wasn’t sure Bay could offer the right sensibility and perspective on such a real-life controversial tragedy still fresh in America’s conscience.

But a couple of things allowed me a little room for optimism. First were some casting choices that I really liked. James Badge Dale is an underappreciated actor who I’ve always enjoyed and John Krasinski is an intriguing bit of casting despite his mediocre filmography. Second was that the film is based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book which interestingly looked at the Benghazi attack from the defender’s point of view. If handled correctly it offers a perspective that could go in a number of thought-provoking directions.

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I get a kick out of watching critics project their politics onto movies like this. Regardless of which side of the aisle they stand, some simply can’t judge the movie without being influenced by their ideology. In this case some of the silliest examples are “[13 Hours] wraps heroic stories in a thick layer of Fox News-endorsed bullcrap”, or “[13 Hours] is simply and completely an indictment [of Hillary Clinton].”

But here’s the thing, neither of those viewpoints are completely accurate. Michael Bay actually goes to great lengths to steer clear of the political mire and keeps his focus on the soldiers. A major component of the story involves the US State Department’s failure to provide increased security as well as the government’s slow response time once the attacks were underway. These are facts which only hardcore partisans would deny. But that is as far as Bay and writer Chuck Hogan go in addressing the controversies. There is no firm stand or clear voice except when proclaiming the heroism of these soldiers.

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Bay spends his first 40 minutes setting up the danger and instability of Benghazi, Libya. The embassy has closed but the United States maintains a presence through an American diplomatic compound. One mile away is a covert CIA Annex which is protected by a small group of security contractors made up of special forces veterans. Krasinski arrives for his 12th stint of security duty. There he meets Badge Dale, an old friend who leads the soldiers but who answers to a naïve and petulant CIA chief (David Costabile).

Between scenes of setting up the danger, highlighting the lax security, and emphasizing their vulnerability, we get several moments of bro-bonding. A lot of it feels pretty familiar – the banter, beards, and biceps. And we get those emotional calls home which are always movie precursors to something bad. But surprisingly these scenes mostly work mainly on the backs of Krasinski and Badge Dale. Both are likable, believable, and make even the cheesiest dialogue work.

Things ratchet up once the attacks begin and Michael Bay slips into his true comfort zone. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety or nuance to Bay’s filmmaking but there is a lot of style. In his Transformers movies Bay offers no hint of restraint. Like a kid on a sugar rush his scenes would often be hyperactive and frantically incoherent. Here he slightly dials it back allowing us to understand what we are seeing on screen. It is an appreciated reminder that Bay does know how to film a good action sequence.

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He also has the ability to wring out every drop of intensity from a scene. Even when you know what’s coming, Bay has a knack for building up and building up until the tension is at a boil. That works both for and against the movie. The same could be said for the action. It’s fierce and visceral but also fairly relentless once it starts. At the same time its thrilling, adrenaline-fueled entertainment that manages to be sincere and respectful even among the impressive spectacle.

Despite the bullets, big explosions, and occasional corny dialogue (especially at the end), the film is more focused than many of Bay’s previous slogs. It maintains a surprising emotional honesty and it doesn’t trivialize what is still a sensitive subject. At its core “13 Hours” is a Michael Bay action flick and it may disappoint those looking for a deeper exploration of the Benghazi attacks. But despite its flaws I still found myself glued to the story of six heroic men putting there all into protecting 36 others. In the end that is the story Michael Bay is telling and he does a pretty good job telling it.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

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33 thoughts on “REVIEW: “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

  1. Nice! I was planning on checking this out but Michael Bay always worries me a little especially since he’s touching on actual events and something much more serious than his usual subject matter. But then, what better place to watch big explosions than on the big screen, right? 😉
    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Definitely going to try and catch this! Great review, Keith! 🙂

    • Thanks Kim! In many ways it is very Michael Bayish. But as someone who just can’t handle his brain-numbing Transformers flicks, I found this one surprisingly entertaining. I thought he was very respectful and responsible while also making this a big screen action picture. That being said, I can see where some wouldn’t respond as well to it. It definitely worked for me more often than not.

      • That’s exactly it! I don’t quite mind Michael Bay. I didn’t like that Dwayne Johnson movie that I can’t remember anymore what its called with Mark Wahlberg. And Transformers is really just a brainless entertainment dumb action flick now that I don’t mind as background noise. This one looks like a legit way for him to be taken more seriously. I haven’t looked at any reviews for 13 Hours other than yours but I’m guessing its going to be quite mixed. “Respectable and Responsible” is what I want to hear for this one so I’m pretty intrigued in checking it out! 🙂

      • Pain and Gain is the one you’re thinking about. I didn’t like that one either. I think you have the right approach to Michael Bay and I think you will appreciate what he does in this one.

  2. I’m still not going to see it. It’s Michael Bay. He has this false idea of patriotism which we all know he’ll exaggerate or glamorize a story that is real. Plus, the fact that it’s endorsed by Donald Trump is another reason for me not to go see it. Yet, I’m not surprised since I consider those two as scums of the Earth.

    • As I said in the review, both sides of the aisle can’t help but project their politics on the film which is a shame since it does stay clear of politics. For me I don’t generally pay any attention to endorsements especially from opportunistic politicians. I honestly didn’t say any false ideas of patriotism in this one. Its a fun but surprisingly reverent action flick.

      • You still can’t get me to see this. I hate his editing style. It’s like a child playing with an editing machine and not knowing when not to cut.

      • No worries. To each his own. Bay’s track record definitely leaves scars. You’re 100% right about his normal directing style. That’s something else he dials back here. Still, there are Bay traits that you probably would want to steer clear of.

  3. I do plan to check this out. Bay doesn’t bother me at all. I always enjoyed the way he shoots action scenes. I also didn’t think he would have any of his juvenile humors which I feel is his Achilles. I think when you hear mixed reviews as opposed to the usual venom his movies get, it perks my ears up a little bit more. The important thing is that he be respectful.

    • Very respectful here. And you’re exactly right, the juvenile humor is gone. Still some will dismiss it and to each his own. I found it to be good entertainment.

  4. It’s one of Bay’s best efforts in a long while. Is it a good film though? No, not really. I almost fell asleep during that 90-minute long action sequence. Good grief the guy is self-indulgent. But the theater I was in was nearly sold out, so he obviously remains a golden egg for Hollywood. What a shame.

    • We definitely disagree. I think its a good film and I found the action to be pretty exhilarating. As I mention I do thing the phases of action we get does go on and on. But ultimately I think he actually shows restraint and focus which I could get used to from him.

  5. I think I had the same reaction to “Michael Bay does Benghazi” that you had. I might catch this on DVD. I planned on ignoring it all together because I assumed there would be a lot of politics in it and I just didn’t feel like hearing it for the 10000000th time, but I’m glad you said that isn’t the case. And hearing Krasanski talk about this film on Bill Maher the other day made me want to give it a bit of a chance. He spoke so positively and sincerely about it.

    And he looks super hot. I’m shallow.

    • The hotness factor didn’t play for me but other positives did. 😉 This honestly isn’t about the politics of it even though some people on both sides can’t help but respond to it as if it was. It’s very much an action movie but without Bay’s normal mind-numbing touches.

  6. Not in any rush to see this because of Bay being in the director’s seat. That said, his better movies are the ones in which he’s forced to set things up and actually tell a story. When he’s doing something that requires none of that, like a Transformers sequel, he just mashes the gas pedal right from the start and never lets up with all the Bayisms. By Bayisms I mean, the cheesy dialogue peppered with middle school humor, tedious, pervasive, and goofy “action” with lots unnecessary explosions and even more unnecessary slow motion shots. This sounds about like I expected. I’ll see it, but it could be a while.

    • Oh yes, I’m familiar with Bayisms. That’s the reason I was apprehensive but also the reason why it was pleasantly surprised. We just get small strokes of only portions of that stuff. He even dials back his ultra-stylized action. It looks great but is much more grounded.

    • LOL. Bay has absolutely earned that reputation. That’s why I’m not a big Bay fan. But this was surprising good. Not flawless for sure but well done.

  7. Glad you saw this Keith! I’d have given this the same rating too, I was surprised how much I was engrossed in this. I guess having met the three real soldiers featured in the film made me more excited about the film than I otherwise would, but still pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t another Bayhem. James Badge Dale was excellent, I think he’s the star of the film, you’re right he’s so underrated!

    • Awesome Ruth! I think some people are automatically dismissing it just because Bay’s name is attached. He certainly has fueled that response with some of his past films. But its unfortunate because this is Bay doing a subject right. Really glad I saw it.

      • Yeah and it’s understandable. I think some people are avoiding this because they thought it’d be a political movie but it wasn’t. Since I’ve read the book it’s based on, I think it’s faithful to the book.

      • You’re so right. It’s not political and I think you have a really unique perspective on it. Meeting them had to have been great.

  8. I’m not a Michael Bay fan but it doesn’t sound like I should dismiss this one outright. Nice to hear he’s able to dial it back a bit. Still have my reservations but I might give it a look when it opens here in a week’s time.

    • I am the same way as you. I was definitely leery considering his past. But he really does a good job here. Just keep in mind that it is actually an action picture but a very respectful one. I liked it.

  9. Pingback: Everybody’s Chattin, Weekend Roundup + Music Break: The Eagles’ Hotel California

    • As I have told others, I can see where you’re coming from because Bay has earned the skepticism. But honestly he does a good job here. He dials it back and the movie is better for it. Not perfect but surprisingly good.

    • You should. I liked it quite a bit. People over here are conveniently injecting their politics into it and using it to their advantage. People from both parties are. It would be funny if it wasn’t so pitiful. Meanwhile the movie stands on its own and it’s an entertaining action ride.

  10. Pleasantly surprised! Just watched today (don’t feel like putting thoughts out about it, but a B/B- maybe?), and I thought Bay did a good job of not infusing a particular viewpoint, but I do wish that we could have seen more of what the story was like in the US.

    It can be a little over the top in its action moments, but they are good, and even with some suspect lines, I cared for all of the characters. Good acting work, hopefully this gets Krasinski out of his 3 year post Office slumber. He can do work.

    • Glad you liked it too. Sad that so many tossed it aside without giving it a fair shake. Really good action and I agree about Krasinski. I would love for this to give him a boost.

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