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.
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.
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.
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 their 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