“This is a true story,” Michael Bay tells us via one of those military telex-style captions at the start of 13 Hours. Then he blows a lot of stuff up. It’s a misreading of the supposed impact of letting the viewer know they’re witnessing an account of true events. The point is that you then deliver something remarkable, stranger than fiction, leaving us shaking our heads in wonder that this really happened. But I can easily wrap my head around the premise that, in a collapsed Middle Eastern state with no government, overrun by mercenaries and Islamist extremists, a fair bit of stuff might get blown up. As early as the opening captions, Michael Bay has failed.
Some context: I think Michael Bay is great when he remembers to have a sense of humour. As recently as 2013 he made Pain & Gain, a sharp, hilarious satire on consumerism, cautioning that to cut corners on your way to the American Dream is to miss its point. The Rock, Armageddon: expert, self-aware blockbusters that hit you in all the right places.
When he forgets to laugh at himself, he’s thunderously uninspired. 13 Hours, the story of CIA contractors in Benghazi protecting the US diplomatic compound from attack by insurgents, is the sort of Bay prospect that you know going in isn’t going to serve up much in the way of laughs, but it might’ve had a go at some sort of self-analysis. Then again, there’s a fashion for a new sort of war film these days, and examining the causes of war, or even acknowledging it’s a bad thing, is less essential than it’s traditionally been before.
Our guy is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who arrives in Libya and puts his wedding ring in a tin, a symbolic act of temporary separation as much as a tactic to prevent its use as leverage. Once he turns up at base camp, he finds a whole host of other big men just as bearded as he, including Roy from The Office, who seems to have forgiven him for nicking his wife back in Scranton. Even Pornstache from Orange Is The New Black is there, now Pornbeard.
Flashback time: Jack has a wife and two daughters and he built them a treehouse once, so that’s us covered for emotional investment. Now GUNS. The raid by Islamic militants isn’t much of a shock, preceded as it is by the standard Bay establishing shots (kids playing in slo-mo in a field, some rags on sticks billowing in the breeze), but when it happens it doesn’t muck about. After a deafening barrage of gunfire, the beards decide they need to head off to the embassy and help out, because military backup is 400 miles away in Tripoli.
This hymn to American exceptionalism is precisely the sort of hollow gesture that was bound to spring up after American Sniper – a flat-out pro-war film, whatever Clint Eastwood might tell you – became a conservative cause célèbre this time last year. While Clint’s film was uninterested in considering the moral and geopolitical implications of American occupation in the Middle East, he did at least deliver a steady pace and a few contemplative scenes so you had a chance to think about it. But he paved the way for a filmmaker like Bay, whom it’s fair to say is less troubled by nuance in general, to come up with a gung-ho shooter in the same spirit.
And shorn of any responsibility to properly stress the cost of war now it’s been established a chest-beating approach will sell tickets, Bay served up this. I suppose I think of 13 Hours much like I do the fact that there are Call Of Duty games set in World War Two: this really happened, you know. There’s no need to try and make it awesome. The best war stories are the ones that take a quirk of combat that boils it down to simple human interest and focus on it, as Saving Private Ryan does. Choosing a story whose chief defining characteristic is that a lot of guns were fired gives us no real insight into war’s tragedy.
But 13 Hours doesn’t bother pretending to; its manifesto is that Americans are awesome at shooting guns, growing beards and walking around with their shirts off looking hench. It is empty, and its maker is capable of much more.
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