Last time Michael Bay lunged for legitimacy, he unleashed 2001’s Pearl Harbor on the world, laboring to locate the fine line between history and profitable extravaganza. He’s after a different type of disaster story with 13 Hours, which dramatizes the 2012 Benghazi diplomatic compound attack, pitting military contractors against Libyan militia.
Bay’s not known for his light touch, and the opportunity to pound audiences with his usual pyrotechnics proves to be too great a temptation. 13 Hours doesn’t deliver a maturing Bay, just one taking a temporary break from the Transformers to embark on a 2½ hour celebration of American bravery and explosions.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
13 Hours doesn’t deliver a more mature Michael Bay, just one who’s taking a break from the Transformers to restage Benghazi.
As Libya dissolves into chaos after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, warring militias arm themselves with stockpiles of weaponry, leaving foreigners inside the country scrambling to leave.
Remaining active is an American diplomatic compound, home to Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), who continues to do business during a volatile time. Situated nearby is a CIA compound overseen by Bob (David Costabile), which houses security contractors unsure of their purpose in the area.
On September 11, 2012, violence emerges, with Libyan soldiers storming the embassy, looking to kill Stevens and any American who stands in their way.
Called into service, warriors such as Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), and Jack Silva (John Krasinski) gear up to protect the compound, scrambling to fend off a vicious enemy as the firefight rages on overnight, with the fatigued men waiting for American reinforcements to arrive.
13 Hours isn’t a political film, downplaying the conspiracies and questions that continue to surround Benghazi. Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (adapting a book by Mitchell Zuckoff) aren’t sifting through minutiae; they simply want to restage the attack.
A series of formulaic introductions establish the security force as beefy family men who transform into killing machines when the time comes, while Bob represents doughy leadership types who panic under fire, always dismissive of the grunts beneath him.
As for the Islamic militants, 13 Hours prefers to keep them as shadowy targets to fling through the air and slice in half when gunfire erupts (you know they’re evil, because there’s a slo-mo shot of rabid Muslims shooting up a tattered American flag). Bay isn’t making a total cartoon, but he knows which side of his bread is buttered, electing to turn the movie into a valentine for the military. Like he always does.
13 Hours is long—extremely long—but it’s not deep. Emotional textures are rare, mostly emerging from Jack, who can’t control himself when the Middle East calls, leaving behind a wife and daughters who have trouble existing without him.
A few crucial moments are set aside to grasp the duality of a family man who loves the war zone, and they are the highlights of the movie. Instead of exploring this adrenaline addiction, making the security force a psychologically sophisticated group of men, Bay turns 13 Hours into an action film, using a theme-park stunt-show aesthetic to showcase real-world horror.
The effort is all about intense close-ups of men shooting guns, driving through armed mobs, and scanning the darkness for additional threat, striving to put the audience in the heat of the moment. Bay goes gaudy instead of sustaining authentic trauma, lingering on shredded body parts and bullets zipping through the air, even recycling imagery from Pearl Harbor.
There’s also an ill-conceived element of humor, watching translator Amahl (Peyman Moaadi) pushed into the action, bumbling along armed and terrified.
There are provocative elements to 13 Hours, which lightly touches on the government’s refusal to join the fight as the security force protects the embassy from wave after wave of Islamic militants, gradually tiring as the enemy attacks increase.
However, Bay and Hogan merely decorate the effort with outrage, ignoring critical details that might steal time away from endless shots of bearded men shooting at other bearded men. Perhaps the Benghazi situation is simply too large a subject for any production to successfully handle, but in Bay’s control, 13 Hours merely provides another opportunity for him to raise hell and avoid dramatic responsibility.