Michael Bay has never been one to showcase subtly and nuance (in fact, he’s pretty much the poster child for the exact opposite), but with his latest, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, he may actually be showing signs of maturity. Based on the nonfiction book by Mitchell Zuckoff that chronicled the September 11, 2012, attacks on the US diplomatic outpost in Libya, 13 Hours follows the half-dozen-strong security team charged with protecting the city’s secret CIA compound.
There’s no doubt that the film includes occasional glimpses of Bay’s trademark tropes–oversaturation, low-angle tracking shots, sun-dappled US flags– but by and large, he exercises what I can only imagine was a tremendous amount of restraint. Content to just let the harrowing events of the titular timeframe play out, Bay eschews his normal explosions and Victoria’s Secret ad-like cinematography to wisely focus on the gunfight that resulted in the death of four Americans and (as a post-credits epilogue tells us) left Libya as a “failed state”.
John Krasinski (Aloha) heads up the mostly little-known cast as Jack Silva, a former Navy SEAL who arrives in Benghazi as 13 Hours begins. He quickly falls in with his comrades, as macho and grizzled a posse as you could imagine, to the point where they actually become fairly interchangeable.
At the outset, Libya is a powderkeg waiting to blow. Rival militia groups are jockeying for control, everyone seems to be carrying an automatic weapon, and, while many locals are pleased with the US efforts to help install a democratic government, there’s no shortage of residents who would like nothing more than to send every American home in a body bag.
After an hour or so of set-up, including no shortage of eye-roll dialogue and unsuccessful character development, the siege begins, and 13 Hours takes on a Black Hawk Down feel, set in Benghazi’s very own Alamo. Bay’s long-proven ability to choreograph shoot-outs and action sequences keeps 13 Hours very much afloat. As bullets and RPGs fly, the tension is ratcheted up, and before you know it, you’ve dug your nails into the armrest to hold on for dear life.
The biggest shortfall of 1 Hours comes in its lamentable script, crammed so full of every action movie cliche that you may find yourself picturing the high-quality, memorable movie that could have been. The perspective we were given in Black Hawk Down is nowhere to be found, and the introspection of American Sniper is missing as well. In fact, so little time is spent on the armed militias (other than portraying them as angry, shadowy expendables with guns) that we never really understand what motivates the entire event.
In the end, 13 Hours comes this close to dissolving into just another firefight movie (albeit a well-shot one), and only getting the chance to witness the real-life bravery and extreme resilience of the American forces saves it.