Overview: Six CIA security contractors attempt to defend a diplomatic compound in Libya when it falls under attack. Paramount Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 144 Minutes.
An Apolitical Effort: With the name of the the city having been fully repurposed as a rabid-dogwhistle within contemporary political discourse, it would be impossible to make a wholly apolitical movie on the subject of Benghazi. So it’s hard to imagine a director taking on the project without an ambition of injecting political purpose. Yet, with 13 Hours, Michael Bay seems to have almost done that, at least in regards to the party divisiveness that now colors the topic here in America. Sure, there are moments when Bay checkers the screen with hopelessly quiet military screen maps and Chuck Hogan’s script is filled with literal unanswered questions (and calls) to illustrate the lack of military assistance received by the under-attack Americans within the secret intelligence compound the night of the Benghazi attacks. Any Conservative who already brings up the attacks in conversation more than twice a day will be able to shoehorn their beliefs into these gaps, but the missing intervention is an established part of the real-life narrative. What’s astonishing is that Bay, whose filmography has always pandered to a certain strain of conservative sensibility with his righteous heroes and their fawned-over women, never assigns what could be interpreted as a failure of the liberal administration to any thematic purpose or message. He seems largely unconcerned with seeking meaning within or understanding of that aspect of the story, or at least he approaches it in a way that’s so subtle compared to everything else that he does that his political point-scoring is easy to miss.
A Military Ambition: Michael Bay, it seems, just wants to finally make his military movie. And why not? Such a structure plays into his begrudgingly admitted strengths. In 13 Hours, the initial attack on the American Ambassador allows the director to employ his manic technique, frenzied camera work anchored by the flashing of gun tips, flames and sparks beautifying explosive danger which is chopped into endless quick cuts. Free of absurd premise (Armageddon, The Rock) and indecipherable CGI design (Transformers, all of them), 13 Hours offers what might be the best Bay can offer. Late in the film, when one of the CIA security contractors describes his team’s defenseless position as a horror movie, the comparison is earned. In between the assaults, overhead drone shots and night vision have built a surprisingly affecting level of tension, and when the film leaves us to feel the brutality of their efforts and the hopelessness of their bravely committed position, that is when it is easiest to invest in these characters. Shortly after the horror film comparison, another of the men point out that every Libyan resident has to be considered an enemy until there’s a reason to be certain he or she is not. This is true; the men, formerly of different branches of the military, are now marooned by the volatile instability of the the failing Libyan state in a way that they can not control or even understand. In this way, the movie works, but then stumbles over Bay’s insistence on further segregating his core collection of characters.
Bay’s Baes: There’s a distinct and exclusive patriotism in 13 Hours, filtered through Bay’s fetishizing of generically manly men. It’s not just that Jack (John Krasinski), Rone (James Badge Dale), and their crew are all hulking men who speak in constipated grunts and decorate virtually every sentence with alpha male pronouns (“brother” and “man” most prominently). It even goes beyond the pornographic way in which the actors handle their guns and needlessly punch simple Budweiser twist caps off of a counter. It’s the way that everything that isn’t that is something less. Women, academic merit, the locals, the intelligence arm of their own operation– everything else is an obstacle, an annoyance, or a thing to be saved. It’s the way that the family side of all of these men is unveiled in a cheap montage while homophobic or tampon-based punchlines are lead into with comparatively full and framed conversations. It’s a strange way to narratively construct a group of actual heroes, by worshiping them into a reductive archetype while demonizing everyone who can not fit into that same hollow caricature.
Overall: 13 Hours, measured as standard action thriller material, avoids enough of Bay’s expected shortcomings to be deserving of a watch.