There seems to be a growing trend of films based on recent historical events. Starting after 9/11, a wave of films about the wars in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, rose very rapidly, despite the fact that those wars were still ongoing. Films like The Hurt Locker (2008), Lone Survivor (2013), and American Sniper (2014) were all released during the wars, with The Hurt Locker coming out during the heat of actual combat. When viewed alongside recent dramas such as Captain Phillips (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016), and Patriots Day (2016), it seems apparent that, as soon as a crisis leaves the cable news cycle, it ends up in a studio boardroom.
Most of these films have capitalized on a popular patriotic appeal that mitigates controversy by celebrating, and at times mourning, real-life American heroes. 13 Hours (2016), on the other hand, charges directly into the most polarizing political controversy of the post-9/11 era, an event that introduced the word “Benghazi” to our vernacular and remains a political fire-starter to this day.
I preface my review with this background because 13 Hours is not a film that can be viewed in a vacuum. For all intents and purposes, 13 Hours should be a disaster of a movie, either a blatantly partisan piece of propaganda or a milquetoast attempt to whitewash history into a uncontroversial action flick that offends the viewer with its lack of both meaning and commitment to truth.
Yet somehow, despite being given the worst possible scenario in which to make a movie, the director of 13 Hours pulls it off, making a film that asks all the right questions but is humble enough not to presume the answers while deferring all respect and moral ground to its subjects. The director honors fallen heroes with dignity and grace, yet counters with the appropriate bluntness and brutality so as to not misrepresent the true circumstances of the incident. And that director…is Michael Bay.
Yes, Michael Bay, the man behind the Transformers franchise and possibly the least subtle man in Hollywood, is the key to the success of 13 Hours. Despite his reputation for making expensively shallow action movies with enough explosions to singe the eyebrows off of his 14-year-old target audience, Bay takes his experience at crafting thrilling action sequences and melds it with a storytelling ability that few would have ever expected him to possess.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bay’s film is its pacing. Blockbusters are usually sprints, putting action sequences nearly stacked on top of each other with whatever may pass for character development in as loose mortar. However, Bay stays true to the reality of the Benghazi attacks: as the title suggests, the CIA agents who are under attack spend thirteen hours waiting for deliverance, and Bay makes the viewer feel that prison of time for every minute of the over two-hour long runtime.
In between waves of hectic action, Bay does his best to create emotional attachments to the heroes. This is by no means one of his strengths, however, and his portrayals of the CIA security operators who defend the compound come off as stereotypical. John Krasinski and James Badge Dale, who play the two leads, help improve upon this weak spot through genuine acting, as does Pablo Schreiber, whose supporting role as another operator is the most impressive performance of the film.
While Bay’s storytelling is not dependent on non-stop action, it is quite clear during the combat scenes that Bay remains one of the best in the business at straight-up action. The combat in 13 Hours to neither unnecessarily gory nor ineffectively bland; rather, it sits in the sweet spot where viewers are engaged with the sensory spectacle but not to the point where they cannot pay attention to the plot. While the action sequences can get quite confusing at times, it is more the product of the chaotic nature of the actual events than that of poor editing and direction.
13 Hours is by no means a perfect movie, but many of its imperfections come from the imperfect nature of the actual events. The intervals between combat sequences are irregular and awkward due to the irregular timeline of events that night. It is almost impossible for the audience to understand who the “bad guys” are because, as is made apparent in the movie, even the operators are not really sure who they are fighting with and who they are fighting against. In order to avoid any political slant, Bay is forced to leave out any information that the CIA team did not actually have that night, leaving the audience just as confused and disoriented as the operators must have been.
But these issues, while detrimental to the viewing pleasure of the audience, are a more accurate representation of the night of the Benghazi attacks than any revisionist, hindsight-based account would be. By limiting our understanding to that of the protagonists, Bay successfully walks the political tightrope and pays proper respect to the heroism of the CIA security team. Bay’s elevation of 13 Hours above the bounds of a typical blockbuster action movie and to the level of films like American Sniper and Lone Survivor is commendable, and 13 Hours is a worthy tribute to the heroes who laid down their lives that night.
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 7/10
*Photo credit: © Paramount Pictures 2016