It’s probably an achievement in itself to say that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, director Michael Bay’s retelling of the fateful 2012 attack on two U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya, is quite possibly his best motion picture to date. But when you’re talking about a filmmaker whose resume includes four near-unwatchable Transformers movies and other hideous exercises like Pearl Harbor, The Island and Armageddon, it’s clear that the bar is set pretty low. Nonetheless, Bay clearly has taken this material much more seriously than that of his earlier films, even if he doesn’t completely hold back some of his worst impulses and the movie drastically reduces a complex situation to a simplistic if often gripping standoff.
As anyone who has followed this story knows, September 11, 2012 was the date of a series of surprise attacks by local militias against a U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi during the post-Gadhafi era. The attacks cost the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) and aide Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli), along with two of the security contractors employed by the CIA. Those six Global Response Staff contractors — ex-SEALs, Marines and Army Special Forces members — ended up making an audacious stand to desperately protect both U.S. outposts against the terrorists when no other help seemed to be arriving.
One problem with 13 Hours is that many of those six men — who go by nicknames like Tanto, Oz and Boon — are rather interchangeable. Big beards and bigger arms are their primary physical characteristics, with the most recognizable face being The Office alumnus John Krasinski, who trades in his tie and lanky amiability for a bulked-up torso, a mass of facial hair and the haunted eyes of a man who arrives in Libya for another security job and immediately begins to wonder why he is not home with his family. Krasinski is good as far as it goes, but that’s about it for any real character development; in the brief moments when these guys are not holding massive weapons in their paws, they’re talking to their family members back home in a handful of mawkish sequences that are one of Bay’s most familiar failings (the other actors alongside Krasinski are James Badge Dale, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber and Max Martini; the women back home at least remain clothed).
When the men are carrying and using those weapons, it’s not always easy to tell them apart either, although in fairness that could be Bay’s method of recreating the chaos that undoubtedly reigned during that long, terrifying night. While the battle sequences — which pretty make up the majority of the 144-minute movie after the first 25 minutes or so — do sometimes lapse into Bay’s trademark incoherence, they are more often than not gripping and overwhelmingly intense as the six contractors hold off wave after wave of attackers. Bay also effectively builds a suffocating sense of dread as the GRS men and the other staffers are constantly confronted by other locals and realize that they can basically trust no one on the unsafe streets.
As Bay and distributor Paramount Pictures have insisted, 13 Hours mostly avoids the politics surrounding the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, the finger-pointing and the now indisputably partisan targeting of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in those endless Republican-controlled Congressional “investigations.” Clinton’s name is never uttered and the President is only mentioned briefly (and even then simply as “POTUS”). Bay saves the most scorn for “Bob” (David Costabile), the CIA head in Benghazi whose insistence on following protocol keeps the security team from arguably taking action quickly enough to save Stevens and his aide.
The movie does bring up that no military assistance save a small team from Tripoli ever shows up; that the local authorities quickly abandon their posts; and that the CIA base itself is not as covert as was assumed. Those revelations and the unanswered questions they bring up linger uneasily, and while it’s probably closer to the truth that the attack was the result of a series of misjudgments and miscalculations on the part of many rather than conspiracies and agendas engineered by a few, Bay avoids that thorny, more complicated path in favor of straight, explosive action seasoned with his usual military fetishism and uber-patriotism (he also, to his credit, includes a scene of Libyan mothers mourning their dead sons and real footage of the people of Benghazi mourning Ambassador Stevens).
Lorne Balfe’s music and Dion Beebe’s often gorgeous camerawork (with Malta standing in for Benghazi) give 13 Hours a luster and immersiveness that make this one of the more well-crafted action/war films in recent memory. But the movies that 13 Hours (which was adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Chuck Hogan from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff and the surviving members of the GRS) most resembles in its you-are-there, minute-by-minute recreation of a strategic military disaster are Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor. And like those films, 13 Hours painstakingly and frighteningly recreates a series of harrowing circumstances and puts incredibly brave men in the midst of them. It also doesn’t blatantly misconstrue or distort events in the way that the odious American Sniper did when it implied that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Let’s be clear: the courage and endurance of the GRS security team in Benghazi cannot be overstated or diminished. But like another movie, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the purpose of 13 Hours seems to only be showing the hell those men (and the people they were protecting) went through, as if that’s enough to justify the story with no other context. It’s a reductive — or to put it another way, dumbed-down — approach to a complicated story. In other words, it’s a Michael Bay movie — but, by his standards, a pretty decent one.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is out in theaters Friday (January 15).