I have to admit that going into 13 Hours, I didn’t really know all that much about the 2012 Benghazi attack, which remains a highly controversial talking point, particularly in right-wing American circles. I did know that director Michael Bay had expressed his desire to make a film about the event that was “apolitical”. I’ve heard some question whether such a thing was even a possibility, that making a movie about an occurrence that’s been heavily politicised will inherently be a political move, much in the same manner of Francois Truffaut’s famous quote about how “every film about war ends up being pro-war”.
We’ve been seeing at least one major modern war movie early each year for the past four, and whatever their filmmaker’s intentions, all ended up being talked about in political terms. American Sniper and Lone Survivor were both heavily embraced by the right, while more interestingly, Zero Dark Thirty proved a more controversial and divisive movie. I’ve known people on opposite ends of the political spectrum read different things into that film, leading me to wonder if people are just imprinting their pre-established positions onto a film like that which, I believe, also was not attempting to take a stance.
With 13 Hours though, I feel that Bay has pretty much achieved his goal in that department. The film does not concern itself with politicians at all. The focus is squarely with the men on the ground in Libya, and the actions they took. In that sense, it plays out mainly as a straightforward action/modern war movie, something Bay’s apparently been trying to make for some time, and honestly, I’m happy to see him doing anything other than making yet more Transformers movies. Like him or not, the man is a fascinating filmmaker.
13 Hours is, on the surface at least, perhaps Bay’s least obvious ‘Michael Bay’ movie, he turns down the gloss, bombastic explosions, huge CGI-filled action scenes such, but it still contains many of his directorial hallmarks, for both good and bad.
It likely won’t surprise anyone to know that Bay’s primary interest is in the action sequences, which take up almost the film’s entire latter half. The main situation is that this small group of military contractors are left defending a compound that’s being attacked from all sides – one of them even mentions ‘The Alamo’ at one point. The choreography and editing – improved from some of Bay’s more infamous work – effectively communicate a sense of chaos and confusion that the men themselves were surely experiencing too. The cuts feel less frenetic, and for the most part, it aims for more realistic, grounded combat, avoiding obvious CGI enhancements. Bay does allow himself one shot where, recalling Pearl Harbor’s bomb drop, he follows a mortar as it fires up through the air until it lands. Somehow, he manages to make this bit of showmanship not feel out-of-place within the scene. Almost all the combat sequences are well presented.
Some other strengths of the film include it’s conveyance of the general situation in Libya. Sure there are opening cards informing us that’s it’s been named ‘one of the world’s most dangerous places’ but our actual introduction to the place, as new arrival Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski) is driven around by fellow military contractor Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), shows us a world where everyone is armed and potentially dangerous. Later on, during the attacks, there are a couple of more subtle touches such as a man seen happily watching a football match as guns go off everywhere that show how this has become part of everyday life for the citizens of Libya. These humanising moments are few and far between though, it could have maybe done with more of them. That’s not to say that it demonizes the Libyans either though, as I did not get that impression at all.
13 Hours has avoided casting any big names for it’s star roles, instead mainly opting for actors who can easily convince as military types. Performers like James Badge Dale and Max Martini seem right at home playing such parts. I was somewhat skeptical that John Krasinski could also pull it off, but he does so without much trouble. Orange is the New Black‘s Pablo Schreiber also makes a memorable appearance as a potentially trouble-making contractor who forms an unusual friendship with a noble, non-combat-trained Libyan translator, a character who helps provide a little balance too. The fact that nearly all these big bearded men look quite similar runs the risk of audiences mixing them up, but this is rarely an issue, even in the more chaotic moments.
Unfortunately, Bay has always been more concerned with spectacle than script, and that is very much still the case with 13 Hours, which was adapted by author Chuck Hogan (The Strain). The dialogue is frequently poor, there are also a few lines one of the men has that are conflicting considering his otherwise heroic portrayal. Additionally, there’s an overly sentimental montage as they all Skype with their families back in the US and even worse, when Jack first arrives we get an awful flashback as he recalls a moment with his wife before he left. It had me worried the film would feature these throughout but it’s mercifully brief and thankfully not a recurring feature.
The film also runs into some trouble regarding its portrayal of the compound’s antagonistic manager. He’s a stuck-up boss type who dislikes everyone, and wants to keep giving out orders even when they’re under attack. He comes across a a total caricature, not a good idea for a supposedly realistic war movie.
Bay never seems to quite know when to stop either. Like a lot of his work, this is far too long for its own good. It could have benefited from tightening up proceedings throughout. He also leans a bit too heavily on the American flag imagery towards the end. The film illustrates the loss suffered efficiently enough that it doesn’t need to hammer these points home with an epilogue like it has, though I suppose it could have been a lot more jingoistic had it desired to be.
Though I mentioned that 13 Hours might be the least obvious example of Michael’s Bay’s distinctive style, beneath the surface it may well actually be a showcase for Bay’s abilities, ably demonstrating many of the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. On the whole, it’s unlikely to be a classic of the genre, but it’s a solid modern war movie, and a decent successor to it’s most obvious influence Black Hawk Down that most should be able to appreciate free from politics.