13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi embodies about what you’d expect out of a marriage between the political firestorm that is Benghazi and Michael Bay, the action director everyone seems to love to hate, despite the fact his films make hundreds of millions of dollars. What will surprise most is just how apolitical the movie is. Conservatives don’t get the Hillary Clinton bait they want and liberals only have to deal with minimal amounts of the kind of over-the-top patriotism that Fox News viewers lap up. 13 Hours deals entirely with the sequence of events themselves, told strictly from the point of view of six contractors-turned-soldiers. It’s a visceral, pounding experience that works as a vintage Bay action film even as it skirts the bigger overall picture.
As the film opens, Jack Silva (Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL turned contractor, is landing in Benghazi, Libya. He’s the newest member of a six-man security team knows as GRS (Global Response Staff; purposefully vague) whose main objective is to protect a top-secret CIA outpost in the city. When U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) makes a visit to Benghazi and opts to stay in a nearby consulate not under CIA protection, the GRS are put on high alert. It doesn’t take long for already-high tensions over the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi to boil over. Militants attack and set the consulate ablaze. GRS are ordered to stand down since they’re not technically military personnel, but they override their superiors and jump into action. What follows is a thirteen hour battle, both at the consulate and CIA compound, that sees the men fending off wave after wave of Islamic militants in the hopes help will arrive.
Those looking for deep insights into the politics and motives of the ambush are going to be disappointed. Bay and writer Chuck Hogan (adapting from Mitchell Zuckoff’s book) keep it strictly about the soldiers and chronological order of events. While this serves the apolitical aspect well, it also prevents the movie from delving into anything resembling controversial territory. This is a straight up action spectacle, and Bay delivers the goods in that regard. His near-parody trademarks are still on display (excessive slow-motion, and you better believe just one image of a bullet-riddled American flag isn’t enough) but these are well-staged, pulse-quickening sequences. A shot visualizing the aerial track of a mortar is especially impressive. Propping all of it up is Hogan’s effective script. Though peppered with platitudes, cliches, and of course The Guy Who’s Always Wrong, it has its heart and mind in the right place, focusing exclusively on the sacrifice and heroism aspects of the story. These men had to make extremely difficult decisions about who was an enemy and who wasn’t, and Hogan’s screenplay wrings generous amounts of suspense out of it. Sad as it is, it’s refreshing to see soldiers portrayed onscreen as something other than bloodthirsty gamers at the shooting range.
13 Hours features a very good ensemble cast, led by John Krasinski in a seamless transition from office nerd to bearded tough guy. In financial trouble and with a third child on the way, Krasinski effectively conveys Silva’s predicament of having everything to lose while doing what he must for his family and country. James Badge Dale is fantastic as squad leader Tyrone “Rone” Woods, as is Pablo Schreiber in the comic relief role as Kris “Tanto” Paronto.
As much flack as Bay regularly takes and as downright bad at the Transformers films got, it’s nice to see him get back on track with the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse. He still stages a chase and shoot-out as well as anyone in the business. 13 Hours offers little to educate on the situation and certainly ducks the political ramifications that continue to this day. That’s an artistic choice, leaving us with an exciting, often authentic-feeling action movie. It’s tough to say it doesn’t succeed to a degree given that criteria.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 144 Minutes
Rating: R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language.
Theatrical Release: January 15, 2016
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Chuck Hogan. Based upon the book by Mitchell Zuckoff.
Cast: John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Toby Stephens