13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Review
The war on terror - Michael Bay style!
The real-life terrorist attack on American diplomats in Libya is given the Michael Bay treatment and turned into a bombastic action romp Call of Duty style.Most Michael Bay films can be described using words beginning with ‘ex’ – explosive, exhilarating, extreme, exciting, excessive, exasperating… there’s another I’m thinking of but I’ll refrain. 13 Hours is not an exception to the rule of thumb that where there is Michael Bay there’s infuriating dialogue, a plethora of explosive objects, fire, brimstone and gunfire… and then some.The 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi was a terrorist atrocity that has continued to haunt the US government, so I’m sure they were thrilled when Michael Bay decided to take it on. In the current political climate of xenophobia and Islamophobia 13 Hours is, on paper at least, a fairly topical film that would seem to be taking on some weighty political issues.
A six-man American security outfit is sent to protect the doomed American diplomatic outpost and inevitably it falls pretty much solely to them to protect the US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) and hold down the fort (literally) for America. The bizarrely-cast John Krasinski plays Jack Silva who, despite misgivings about the mission joins old Navy SEAL pal Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) and the rest of the band of “contractors” in Benghazi.
Although Krasinski’s casting is a seriously rogue choice, it sort of works in the context of the hyper-masculine, alpha male six-man crew: it does lend the film a few moments of humanity. While another, more traditionally ‘hard-man’ actor might have struggled with the softer sides of Silva – Skype conversations with his family, a flashback to building a treehouse – Krasinski’s unassuming amiability does carry these moments.
Ultimately though, this is a Michael Bay film. Depending on your point of view, you get either the best or the worst of Michael Bay here. This is, to quote Rone, “balls-out” Americanism – this is a film about American military heroes who defended their compound, a group of action-men who were let down by the higher-ups. Bay uses all of his explosive skill here, and there are long sequences of ear-drum popping gunfire, disorientating cuts from soldier to soldier, bravado-laden speeches and, of course, huge burning infernos and explosions. The six contractors are the heroes, all Libyans are suspicious and the CIA agents, operatives and other suits are all hindrances.
The action sequences – of which there are many – are undoubtedly Bay’s strong suit and he captures them with aplomb. 13 Hours is effective in what it wants to do: shock and awe. The long gun-battles, launching of mortars and shots through rifle view-finders are all key to this kind of film, and in the age of Call Of Duty games this kind of aesthetic will be extremely familiar to most viewers. For those of us who aren’t so into this mode of narrative, the drawn-out battles and night-vision shots of faceless Libyan terrorists in the distance can get a little old. At one point I started to wonder whether the film’s title was actually just a description of how long it was.
Depending on your point of view, you get either the best or the worst of Michael Bay here.
The majority of the film is a confusing series of car chases, gun fights and other acts of violence, cut with walkie-talkie conversations that just serve to show the CIA in the worst possible light. The title card at the beginning of 13 Hours reads “this is a true story”, but the film itself is difficult to reconcile with actual history, and impossible to liken to the infamous and complex political scandal that resulted from the tragic death of Ambassador Stevens.
The film is pretty formulaic action movie fare – our hero looks into the distance, stony-faced and grim; a huge fireball explodes in slow motion; the shattering gun-fire fills the cinema speakers. It’s also difficult to look on this as much else apart from propaganda; there are maybe a handful of establishing, close-up shots of non-white faces, and save for a shot close to the end showing distraught mothers mourning their dead children, there’s not a whole lot of humanising for the Libyan people in this film.
The attack at Benghazi was a terrible attack on a diplomatic base, and its ramifications are still being felt today. In this light, the choice to make a Michael Bay, guns-blazing, machismo-dripping blockbuster about the event is a little puzzling. Admittedly, this is a spectacular action movie, and fans of Michael Bay, war films or explosive blockbusters will have an enjoyable two hours watching this.
But throwaway lines like “welcome to Benghazi… it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys”, “they’re all bad guys until they’re not” and “I’m going to shoot him in the face” betray the film for what it really is – not much more than Hollywood-style propaganda, too busy lighting pyrotechnics and setting off explosions to find a nuanced way of telling the real and compelling Benghazi story.
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