Film Review: 13 Hours – The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Does Michael Bay have a spiritual side? There are glimmers of it found in his new film, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, particularly when a bearded grunt named Boon (played by The Office’s David Denman) begins reading aloud from Joseph Campbell’s book, The Power of Myth. However, for the most part Bay’s take on the 2012 Benghazi attack is bruising and simplistic, although quite muted politically. The most interesting thing about 13 Hours is actually how it represents the director and provocateur at maybe his most conflicted. Striking a cord similar to Pain and Gain – Bay’s black comedy from 2013 – the film offers a worldview that is deeply problematic but perhaps also problematically deep. Instead of complexly parsing a real-world tragedy, 13 Hours more closely resembles a $50 million dollar therapy session, where Bay both indulges his cinematic fetishes and responsibly critiques them.

13 Hours opens with newsreel footage, covering the recent Libyan history that laid the groundwork for the attack of September 12, 2012. This half-hearted contextualization soon comes to a close however. It becomes clear that Bay isn’t interested in placing the Benghazi attack on a historical timeline. Instead, he is far more concerned with tracking the simple, blunt heroism of his film’s titular characters, who mostly never rise above superficial archetypes.

Of these six men that compose the so-called “secret soldiers,” only John Krasinski’s Jack Silva and James Badge Dale’s Tyrone Woods register as recognizably human. The rest of the crew, including Max Martini’s Oz, Denman’s Boon, Pablo Schreiber’s Kris and Dominic Fumusa’s Tig are stock characters, each only possessing a singular personality trait and sometimes not even that. The lack of character development feels particularly glaring considering the film’s grueling run time (clocking in at quite nearly two and a half hours) and that Chuck Hogan’s script also doesn’t give the opposition side a voice at all. Anyone looking for the type of culturally-sensitive nuances Eastwood brought to his 2006 effort, Letters from Iwo Jima, is going to come away disappointed. But, then again, anyone looking for this in a Bay film probably deserves everything they get.

One thing you can rely on with movies about the military is that the filmmakers behind them will repeatedly assert the “normalcy” of their servicemen characters in interviews. This is obviously intended to make each film’s depiction of heroism feel more extraordinary. The problem is that these characters are rarely depicted that way. Martini’s Oz and Denman’s Boon are perfect examples of this problem. Bay clumsily aspires to round out these men with throw-away mentions to children and wives awaiting them at home. Yet, each man has such a cavalier attitude towards the work they do – not to mention its ridiculously high mortality rate – that it’s hard not to look at them as mentally ill rather than morally superior. Despite this, all the primary actors behind the secret soldiers are perfectly fine in their roles – although none of them have much to work with. Even Krasinski – who easily has the most substantial part – is rather colorless. Like the underachieving asshole he played on The Office, his Jack Silva is another boring family man, a blase dude whose defining feature is the pounds of show muscle the actor packed on for the role.

One has to wonder if this lack of investigation into the soldiers’ personalities is intentional. Because while the film is largely free from pointed partisanship, it has a very specific idea on what type of masculinity is appropriate. All the soldiers in 13 Hours feel uniform and indistinguishable for this reason. Bay has to have something to juxtapose the character of CIA Chief Bob against, who’s played by David Costabile (Glen from Breaking Bad). Unlike the soldiers – who are all hearty, virile, and covered in muscles and body hair – Bob is a paunchy little egghead. He doesn’t hold a gun or workout. At no point is there a mention of Bob having a litter of children at home, nor is there talk of a devoted wife desperately pining for Bob to return and impregnate her again. No, Bob is the antithesis of the secret soldiers, possessing a degenerate, degraded form of masculinity, like a little vermin man. He’s also wholly unlikable, continually lording his elevated professional status over the soldiers and harshly referring to them as “hired help” and “animals.”

This laughable characterization is not the most egregious move on Bay’s part. He actually turns poor ratman Bob into the very reason for why the Benghazi attack became the disaster that it did. This is shown in a prolonged scene where the soldiers are delayed by Bob from immediately rushing to the aid of the late U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher). It is suggested that without this interference the ambassador may have had a better chance of emerging from the attack with his life. This feels like a dangerously irresponsible move on the director’s part, and also the most ideologically-biased part of the film.

Once the soldiers are finally unleashed, 13 Hours dramatically improves. Bay clearly is more in his comfort zone depicting scenes of pitched, chaotic violence than subtly parsing something like the tension between individuals and institutions. The siege on the U.S. compound is ferocious, confusing and effective, an orgy of bullets, RPGs, screaming men and military jargon. It even feels wrongly cathartic, but only slightly.

The buildup to these attacks is horribly paced and segmented awkwardly by periodic cuts to black. This gives the film a disjointed feel, which may have been forgivable if the first half of the film had felt more integral to its story. Yet, despite the technical bravura of many moments, such as a beautiful shot of Libyan children dancing on skeletal remains of a car, 13 Hours often feels empty and meaningless. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of the first action scenes, a car chase where Krasinski’s and Dale’s characters attempt to evade a tail. It’s simply unclear how this is supposed to relate to the central attacks, leaving the visceral set piece feeling self-indulgent in the worst possible way.

But this self-indulgence is where the film also strangely works, or at the very least becomes the most interesting. Bay has always been an unabashed fan of the military, and of the type of man and the type of life that is often seen as synonymous with it. That type of unquestioning, mindless sentimentality is certainly in 13 Hours. It is evident in how the Bob character is demeaned and in the muscular camerawork and swelling warrior score (which occasionally sounds an ancient tribal battle drum). These are designed to constantly remind you that these are powerful, competent men, who have much more testosterone than you or I.

In 13 Hours however, this boorish ideology is juxtaposed with something else, something that erodes his expected fetishistic attitude toward American exceptionalism. 13 Hours is the most sober movie Bay has probably ever made, informed by what has to be the director’s growing cynicism.

There is a palpable feeling of dread throughout the film, a sense that everything America has built, everything it stands for, is all falling down. This is apparent when the wife of Krasinski’s Silva bursts into tears while talking on the phone with him and taking a carload of kids through a McDonald’s drive-through. And it’s seen in the film’s treatment of the American flag, which is surprisingly understated. Often times in 13 Hours, the flag is unexpectedly positioned. It’s on the side of a shot, halfway out of the frame, or even ignominiously in a pool of dirty water. This content is paired with typical Bay fodder, such as shots that shamelessly ogle the ripped cores and bulging pectorals of the soldiers when they’re working out. And while this makes 13 Hours feel uneven, it creates a tension that is undeniably engaging. This is not meant to suggest that 13 Hours is good movie mind you, not by a long shot. But it is certainly, and perhaps unfortunately, watchable.

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