You might raise an eyebrow when you learn that Michael Bay of Transformers fame is the director of Hollywood’s take on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi. War movie buffs may raise the other eyebrow after recalling Bay’s floundering misfire Pearl Harbor.
But if you give the man a chance, he ends up surprising you. As it turns out, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a respectful and engaging drama of modern combat and valor, and it’s definitely worth a look. It’s still got the signature “Bayhem” style of composition and editing, but it’s notably toned down from his earlier efforts.
This is a film that stands out among other films about the War on Terror, primarily because its protagonists aren’t exactly fighting that war anymore. The men who defended the American diplomatic compound were all ex-military CIA contractors, making this film distinct from American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which included active-duty military to drive the narrative.
To see characters in a war movie with no ranks on their shoulders is interesting. They wear tactical pants and flannel shirts under their plate carriers. One man went to battle in khaki shorts. Most have beards and hairstyles liberated from the constraints of military regulations. They look like guys you’d meet at a bar in Imperial Beach. Seeing these dudes rock full tactical loadouts and “unleash hate” on wave after wave of attackers is a reminder that for some servicemen, the war doesn’t end when the uniform comes off.
The film also does a great job of showing exactly how dangerous Benghazi is. One early scene involves a tense traffic jam with the barrels of various guns pointed in all directions. It wasn’t done as well as the similar scene in last year’s Sicario, but it still managed to evoke how threatening this city was in 2012.
Either you’re tired of hearing about Benghazi, or you can’t get enough of it. The ferocious controversy the word evokes is on the minds of many Americans, especially as this election year heats up. But here’s the thing: Bay’s film doesn’t particularly care about that, and as a moviegoer, neither did I. The movie dispenses with politics before it even begins. The title card reads simply 13 Hours, ignoring the subtitle The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. It’s not a stretch to conclude that the studio tacked on the second title to sell tickets to politically minded Americans.
While Bay clearly didn’t want to make a movie that pushes the political hot buttons, he does make a point to describe how these men received little support by US forces. The situation in Benghazi was a total logistical nightmare, with ground personnel even less equipped than normal to tell the good guys from the bad, making the need for the full might of American eyes-in-the-sky that much more essential. The film splices in plenty of “what are we waiting for” moments, and government individuals resisting further escalation. There’s one brief shot of a few F-16s sitting idle and awaiting orders that felt particularly heavy.
On the acting front, pretty much everyone puts forth a solid effort. John Krasinski, who plays the most relatable protagonist, has come a long way from the sardonic nice guy in The Office. James Badge Dale is effective as the intense leader of the group, making me want to revisit the HBO miniseries The Pacific where many viewers first discovered him. And there’s a slew of other guys who enjoy inhabiting the role of bearded badass operators laying down fire alongside each other. There’s even a healthy amount of humor injected into the chaos, lending credibility to how these guys would react to such a FUBAR situation.
As any of our regular readers would know by now, we tend to only do reviews of movies which GovX members would probably want to go see. (That doesn’t mean you get a review of Ride Along 2, though. No way.) This is one of those movies. It’s a restrained effort by a director who’s usually all about fighting robots and explosions. I probably could have done without the Pearl Harbor-style slow-motion incoming mortar shell shot. But, hey, a director has got to have a style he can call his own, right?
Bayhem aside, 13 Hours is an enjoyable and emotional depiction of modern combat, and it’s a surprisingly respectful take on an enigmatic moment of history. Be sure to see it and let us know what you think in the comments below.