Everything in director Michael Bay’s cinematic vocabulary – the glamorizing slo-mo, the falling bomb point-of-view shots, the low-angle framing of his heroes with blue sky, fireballs or an American flag in the background – suggests not real life, or the way things might have happened, but a Michael Bay movie.
It’s true of the “Transformers” movies and it’s true of “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” Bay’s latest is a mixed-up blend of truth and distortion. Parts of it deliver a punch, and a jolt, and ripples of earnest (and even complicated) emotion. Then the characters, some of them composites or fabrications, start talking again. The clichés tumble out. And Bay gets preoccupied with delivering audience-baiting “kill shots,” engineered to appease our bloodlust and avenge our enemies.
At such moments “13 Hours” becomes less convincing in its interpretation of what happened Sept. 11-12, 2012, when terrorists attacked two Central Intelligence Agency compounds (one official, one unofficial) in Benghazi, Libya. The key figures here, the men who helped Mitchell Zuckoff write the account on which Bay’s film is based, are members of the CIA’s sub-contracted GRS, or Global Response Staff. Six members of what was known as the Annex Security Team were hired to protect CIA staffers at the compounds.
Photographed in Malta, doubling for Libya, “13 Hours” begins with the usual introductions of the six GRS security personnel soon to be under siege. John Krasinski of “The Office” plays Jack Silva, the most amiable of the guys, who has left a wife and children behind to make a living, keep the adrenaline going and serve a higher cause in a dangerous place. James Badge Dale portrays the stalwart Tyrone “Rone” Woods, a natural leader and a bullheaded adversary to the sniveling CIA base chief (David Costabile) who symbolizes everything wrong with foreign policy, in Bay’s eyes, under the Obama administration. Screenwriter Chuck Hogan (“The Town”) leaves nothing to chance, as Costabile’s soft-bellied Ivy League punk looks one of our protectors straight in the eye and says: “You’re not a first responder. You’re the last resort.” Such moments push “13 Hours” far, far into movieland.
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But of course “13 Hours” is a movie, and movies owe their subjects and the audience something larger than the facts. The characters refer to other films: “Black Hawk Down,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Tropic Thunder.” At his shrewdest, Bay handles the action swiftly and well. The compound assaults; the perplexing array of Libyan militia fighters (never humanized, barely dramatized) working with, or against, the U.S.; the physical spaces in which the battles take place and the bodies fall, often video-gamer style, with little poofs of red blood hitting the air after the bullets hit the targets’ skulls.
Some of this is slick and enjoyable in what I’d characterize as the wrong way, the painlessly bloody, box-office-friendly way. But now and then, Bay captures something more troubling and messy going on, as in the weird moments of calm between the shootings, when the grounds of the U.S. ambassador’s rented home become crowded with dazed Libyan militia members of uncertain loyalty. And Krasinski comes through movingly in his final scenes.
Fox News and other conservative outlets are all over “13 Hours” and, judging from many early reports, loving it. Early in the film President Barack Obama is heard in voiceover, praising “a new and democratic Libya” in the wake of the post-Gadhafi era. It’s a “what-an-idiot!” moment, disproved immediately by a quick montage of chaos and destruction. The other off-screen villain of the movie, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will no doubt be answering question after question on the campaign trail about the film’s inference, largely supported by the historical record, that the U.S. underestimated security concerns before and after the terrorist attacks in Benghazi.
“13 Hours” says one thing – “You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys” – and shows you quite another. Bay and company have no trouble telling the good guys from the bad guys. We are only meant to care about certain deaths, not the vast majority. The key characters are pencil sketches, not flesh-and-blood, but they serve Bay’s purposes, as do the performances. They’re mythic warriors, not men, really, although their heroism was very real. Never dull, “13 Hours” gives you a little of that, and lot of what most people actually go to war movies for, which is the opposite of reality.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Cast: John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge
Director: Michael Bay
Rated R (for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language)