A film review by Craig J. Koban January 29, 2016

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI jj
 

2016, R, 144 mins.

 

John Krasinski as Jack  /  James Badge Dale as Rone  /  Pablo Schreiber as Tanto  /  David Denman as Boon  /  Dominic Fumusa as Tig  /  Max Martini as Oz  /  Toby Stephens as Glen 'Bub' Doherty  /  David Costabile as The Chief  /  Elektra Anastasi as CIA Agent  /  Alexia Barlier as Sona Jillani

Directed by Michael Bay  /  Written by Chuck Hogan

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI is a potentially great reality based military/political thriller trapped within a very mediocre shell.  

Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book of the same same, the film deals with the 2012 Benghazi attacks that took place on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2012, during which time Islamic militants bombarded the American diplomatic compound in Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in the process (the first ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since the late 70’s).  The militants later went on to siege another compound a mile away, killing and injuring CIA contractors.  There is a powerfully compelling story to be had here regarding heroism, bravery, and the dicey relationship between America and the Middle East, but it’s regrettably AWOL in this film. 

This has a lot to do with the fact that director Michael Bay is at the helm, and usually when his name is associated with cinematic historical retellings the wretched end results speak for themselves (PEARL HARBOR, anyone?).  On one level, Bay should be commended for at least trying to work outside of his comfort window (no extraterrestrial alien robots to be found here), and on a level of chronicling a pulse-pounding story of American guts and perseverance, 13 HOURS mostly achieves its goals.  The main problem, though, with the film is that Bay neither has the faculty – nor the apparent interest – to embark on any level of meaningful and contemplative discourse about the geo-political ramifications of the attacks.  13 HOURS is painfully empty minded in this regard, opting to ostensibly serve as a one-sided, jingoistic love ballad to military men and not much more.  All in all, Bay delivers his typical status quo of headache inducing editorial overkill in the film’s multiple – and mostly indecipherable – action sequences, but his movie is all brawn and no brains in the way it utterly avoids any of the more troublesome questions regarding American involvement in foreign countries and upper-level governmental negligence and ineptitude.  

 

 

The film opens with dutiful and obligatory title cards that introduce audience members to the historical particulars.  Libya has become one of the most dangerous and unstable places on the planet after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, leaving hordes of warring militias stocking up on leftover weapon caches and thus turning the nation into a place of fear, unrest and uncertainty.  One America compound remains active, which is home to Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher), who still feels honor bound and dedicated to do his job...even in a country on the verge of total collapse.  Another CIA compound resides close by, overseen by Bob (David Costabile), which in turn is the home base for a series of American security/military contractors: Jack (John Krasinski), Rone (James Badge Dale), Tanto (Pablo Schreiber), Boon (Dave Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa) and Oz (Max Martini).  All of these men seem a bit uncertain as to what their real mission objectives are in Libya, but they all share one commonality: they’re grizzled and bearded Americans that are highly efficient at taking names and kicking ass when the time comes. 

Well, the proverbial time does come on September 11, 2012 when militia soldiers storm the embassy in a violent effort to eradicate any Americans in their collective sights.  Just a bit over a mile away, the American security team decides to spring into action, but first must deal with the bureaucratic powers that be that are staling any military effort to save the ambassador.  Once they're given the green light, the soldiers jump into the thick of things, but when it becomes very clear that the ambassador is dead they must go on the defensive to protect their own compound, fending it off against multiple swarms of Libyan soldiers that seem hell-bent on not stopping until they achieve their end game.  Ample hell subsequently breaks loose.

Again, I will give Bay some props for attempting a relatively mature film for adult audiences with 13 HOURS and the manner in which he evokes ground level chaos and bloodshed that erupts in war zones is pretty assured and confident.  Something that greatly impedes Bay’s determined efforts to relay this is…well…Bay himself.  13 HOURS is yet another film that more than confirms that the filmmaker has Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to engineering and executing action sequences: he’s simply incapable of keeping his camera still and can’t hold a shot – seemingly any shot – for more than 8 seconds.  Bay’s unwillingness to keep his problematic stylistic hubris in check makes the overall action geography in 13 HOURS a messy and headache inducing ordeal to sit through.  To be fair, Bay captures the level of paranoid uncertainty and confusion that erupts in such sequences, but the spatial relationships between enemy combatants is borderline confusing at times.  For the most part, 13 HOURS is a messy and frenetic mash-up of bullets and explosions…and not much else. 

Character dynamics are disappointingly absent here as well.  Screenwriter Chuck Hogan (who wrote the novel that was eventually adapted into Ben Affleck’s THE TOWN) seems hesitant to fully explore these contractor characters beyond the cookie cutter definitions of them that we’ve seen in countless other war films.  Most of the “heroes” presented in the film are pretty indistinguishable from each other beyond being proud, flag waiving Americans with big axes to grind against any enemy of their country, no matter what the dangerous circumstances.  Some of the individual performances are decent, especially from Krasinski, but only when the screenplay gives him some moments of relative dramatic solemnity to do so.  13 HOURS really fails at portraying the Islamic militants, seeing as they're essentially identified as figures in the shadows that crazily shoot at Americans when not shooting at the American flag (the latter being one of Bay’s many shots in the film that lacks any semblance of subtlety).  The film’s lackluster black and white handling and portrayal of an incredibly complex incident and the players involved in it left a bad taste in my mouth.  For a film that’s egregiously long to begin with (two and a half hours), it has no business being so thinly scripted. 

13 HOURS is a truly wasted and misguided effort.  What could have been a very sophisticated and intriguing dissection of the Benghazi attacks instead becomes yet another mindless and soulless Michael Bay action film with predictable beats throughout.  Somewhat like AMERICAN SNIPER, 13 HOURS parades around celebrating American military valor without ever satisfyingly probing and commenting on the nature of it.  Even when the film does try to deal with the government’s initial refusal to step in and assist the security forces at the embassy (inaction that arguably cost the ambassador’s life), Bay never lingers on such provocative queries long enough for them to truly matter.  In the hands of an infinitely better filmmaker – like a Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg – 13 HOURS could have simmered with legitimate intensity and served as an eerie and timely reminder of the dangerous world that we reside in.  In Michael Bay’s hands, the Benghazi incident is reduced down to a garish carnival extravaganza of warzone mayhem...full of sound and fury signifying nothing. 

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