Michael Bay has not made a “serious” film since Pearl Harbor, the 2001 box office blunder that tried to capitalize on the success of Titanic. It suffered from a half-cooked romance, insulting secondary characters, and a dearth of accuracy. In his latest film 13 Hours, Bay improves upon the mistakes of Pearl Harbor, even if he cannot help but include the action and macho bullshit that are the hallmarks of everything he touches. 13 Hours is an account of the September 2012 attack on diplomatic outposts in Benghazi, Libya, told from the perspective of private security personnel who fought to keep Americans live as long as they could. While the film’s apolitical approach is its own form of politics, the nature of the attack forces Bay to reign his signature style so that we can finally understanding what is happening.
Grim title cards and footage of Gaddafi’s capture establish some context, but our main entry point is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), an ex-SEAL who’s about to begin a two month stint in Benghazi. Shortly after Silva reunites with his Navy buddy Woods (James Badge Dale), they find themselves in a tense ambush. Bay has a hard-on for military hardware, so of course Woods and Silva brandish their pistols as soon as possible, grimly announcing they’re willing to die for their employers. Those employers are the CIA, and their boss Bob (David Costabile) sees them as unwanted babysitters, while the soldiers mock his fancy college degree. Meanwhile the mood in Benghazi escalates, culminating with fighters taking the diplomatic outpost which is near the covert CIA facility where Silva and the others live. Private security has no authority in the region, so Silva, Woods, and four others eventually decide to intervene. But after a daring, unsuccessful rescue mission, the warring Libyan factions realize the covert facility is the real prize, and launch an assault there.
The opening act of 13 Hours does not exactly offer much promise. Like The Rock and Armageddon, most of the character development revolves around which tough guy is toughest. Silva and the other roughnecks practically beat their chests, suffering at the indignity of a well-compensated gig in Benghazi. And when the security force has some down time, Bay subjects us to pat, saccharine scenes where they Skype with their families back home. What’s worse, however, is how Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan shoehorn action sequences into a film that does not require them. Aside from the aforementioned stand-off, there are a couple car chases that are almost certainly sensationalized past the point of credibility. It’s as if Bay does not trust his incredible story to be engaging on its own merit.
Michael Bay is a pioneer of a technique dubiously called “chaos cinema.” Broadly speaking, chaos cinema is where a filmmaker uses distorted editing and camera placement in order to suggest excitement, rather than show it. This is never more apparent than the Transformers films, where incoherent CGI contorts and explodes with such velocity that we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing. Bay has more constraint in 13 Hours simply because his premise forces him to slow down the action. The climax involves a series of tense, violent gun fights where there is enough information and light to see how the battle lines are defined. When Bay needs a certain level of uncertainty, such as the set-piece where Silva tries and make sense of the diplomatic outpost, there is genuine suspense since it impossible to tell the difference between a “friendly” and an enemy.
Still, the most striking sequence of 13 Hours is the initial attack on the outpost. The fighters infiltrate with remarkable ease, and their attack on Ambassador Chris Stevens seemingly happens without a hitch. The disturbing implication, of course, is that these men could stage a successful assault on an American compound simply because they had the will to do so.
Bay will never be known as a great director of actors, and yet some actors have moments where they transcend Hogan’s cornball screenplay. While Bob initially seems like an effete weakling, Costabile at least has the forcefulness so we can understand where he is coming from. As for the six-man security team, they mostly speak with platitudes that have been found in dozens of prior films about the military. But for all the dick jokes and times they refer to each other as “brother,” Hogan and Bay find an interesting moment where the men are downright existential. Woods reflects on his new career with grim resignation, and the implication is that there would be little glory in surviving this attack. Of course, the whole point of 13 Hours is that these men deserve more credit, but that’s immaterial. As for Krasinski, he ably sheds his comic persona with a character who is competent and realistic. The film ends with Krasinski hitting an emotional note that’s more moving than the film requires, which suggests he could have more depth as an actor and star.
The fallout from the Benghazi attacks led to some intense political theater, with several hearings in which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced angry questions from members of Congress. Bay does include scenes in the Pentagon and nearby military bases, yet 13 Hours is mostly from the perspective of the CIA outpost. This tunnel-vision is its own form of politics, suggesting that American exceptionalism is always the answer (there are short references to the government’s initial disinformation campaign). It’s to Bay and Hogan’s credit that they do not even attempt to humanize the enemy – Pearl Harbor condescended to the Japanese – and instead keeps them as faceless wraiths who seemingly never run out of firepower. If Bay cut a couple of superfluous sub-plots and too many secondary characters, 13 Hours might have unfolded with the same tense verisimilitude that defined Black Hawk Down. The six “secret soldiers of Benghazi” indeed fought bravely, yet for Bay that is never enough.