13 Hours review: Michael Bay’s Benghazi is alive. You’re probably dead
Director - Michael Bay
Cast - John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini
Rating - 2.5/5
It is the dead of night in Benghazi, Libya. A group of ragged men wearing indistinguishable beards sit huddled on a rooftop. They’re protecting a United States compound that is under attack by faceless Libyan militia. Suddenly, the heroic white men spot their native enemies. They’re scurrying in the weeds like scum. It’s unclear who shoots first. Michael Bay’s retelling of the Battle of Benghazi lives up to its name, because when the last man falls to the ground, limbs gruesomely ripped apart, it feels like you’ve been watching it for half a day.
But hidden deep beneath the blood and fire is a real movie, a movie about heroism and courage, a movie about male bonding and the smiling politicians who called all the shots on that day. But sadly, that’s not the movie Michael Bay made. Unable to contain himself, he succumbed to his worst habits.
The story is told through the eyes a group of ex-military contractors stationed in post-Ghaddafi Libya. Gangs have looted the tyrannical dictator’s stockpile of weaponry and a fierce turf war has broken out. There is a secret CIA site that needs protection and the ambassador is visiting. Our surrogate in this lawless world is John Krasinski’s Jack Da Silva. He’s a veteran just like his buddy Tyrone Woods, played by newly minted action star James Badge Dale, who’s heading the team down there. On the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the CIA safehouse is attacked.
We spend about an hour with the team, codenamed GRS. It’s made up of hirsute rednecks with the typical Call of Duty names. There’s Boone, there’s Tanto, Tig, Oz and Bub. Obviously, it’s difficult to tell them apart, because as hard as he tries to get you to care about them, with their frequent calls home to their wives and the quiet stroking of their newborn’s photographs, it always feels like Bay is just checking all the boxes as he impatiently nudges you to his favourite part: The action.
And boy is there a lot of it. Well, of course there was going to be action. It’s a Michael Bay film about the Battle of Benghazi after all. But while the rest of the world shook their heads in disbelief when he announced his intention to direct this movie, I rooted for Bay, the unapologetic fan that I am. But here, he has let me down. He has resorted to the very same laziness they’ve always accused him of and I just can’t defend him any longer.
He tries, make no mistake. As a last ditch attempt to make his characters even slightly human, he contrives a montage comprised exclusively of grown men Skyping home, as the warm Libyan sun frames them in silhouette, temporarily forgetting the reality of the situation.
And then comes the action. All one and a half hours of it. Like the faceless militants with their RPGs and AKs, Bay launches an all out assault. Hordes of attackers descend upon the safehouse, only to be ripped to shreds by the American’s bullets. Once they’ve retreated or, more likely, died, there is a brief respite, only for the cycle to begin all over again with a fresh new batch of almost videogame level enemies. If Bay’s objective was to make us really live the experience of the assault, and I seriously doubt it, he has succeeded. The attacks feel unrelenting, unstoppable and tedious. There is no drama or human moment in between the gunshots. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that was essentially one large action scene, and look at the last hour and a half of 13 Hours and even the most casual of moviegoers can tell what’s wrong.
Bay wants to make a Black Hawk Down. He even has a character make a joke about being in that movie. But it doesn’t even come close. It has none of the gritty realism of Ridley Scott’s film. Bay’s glossy, lens flare-infused visuals make sure of that. It has none of the emotion of Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor and none of the genius of Restrepo. It wants to portray the meaninglessness of war like Brad Pitt’s Fury, but it’s directed by the guy who made four Transformers movies. We all know Bay isn’t as gifted a storyteller as Kathryn Bigelow, so expecting the precision of Zero Dark Thirty is unrealistic. But what he can do is direct action. When the human drama was falling flat for an hour, the anticipation of some of Michael Bay’s most restrained action kept me going. But that wasn’t to be.
And thank God Bay steered clear off the politics. The Benghazi incident caused quite the stir, with Hillary Clinton taking responsibility as the Secretary of State for all the security shortcomings. But this movie is non-partisan. Sure, it points some fingers and has its own idea of who was to blame for the tragedy, but that’s not what it’s about.
It is, however, about the brave men who went out to protect their countrymen when they didn’t have to. As I said before, there is a really good movie in here somewhere, perhaps after an hour or so is cut out. But Bay’s head, just like Tarantino’s at this point, is so far up his own butt that he just won’t allow it. Wars are never fought by just one side and Michael Bay manages to convey that sentiment with some of the most striking images he has ever put on film here. But those come right at the end. The rest of the time he’s just having fun blowing stuff up as he bides his time till Transformers 5.
Watch the trailer here