13 Hours may just be Michael Bay’s best recent film, but considering Bay’s track record this is not high praise. The film is functional and clearly designed to pick at our nation’s the still-fresh scars from the attack on our embassy in Benghazi, but overall it lacks heart and cohesive visual storytelling.
The film focuses on a group of private security contractors in Benghazi, Libya. As explained in the text-heavy opening sequence, these contractors are in Libya to protect a very secret CIA outpost. The men are all ex-military, from one armed forces branch or another. Jack (John Krasinski) arrives as the latest in the group and is shown the ropes. Within minutes of arriving in Libya he and his escort Rone (James Badge Dale) are stopped in an illegal roadblock and held at gunpoint. Their fancy talking, quick draw firearms, and general ‘Mericanness get them out of the incident pretty quickly, though a bit shaken. What 13 Hours begins to hammer home, and practically hits the audience of the head with, is the fact that not only are Americans not wanted there, we can never trust the Libyans.
Jumping forward five weeks, our security crew is going through their daily routine (get homesick, workout, escort CIA officers, repeat) when they learn that the Libyan ambassador is going to be visiting Benghazi from his embassy in Tripoli. His house there was not armed and had only minimal protection offered to the ambassador. The film practically posits that there was no way that building was not going to get attacked.
Not having any knowledge of the true history of the attacks in Benghazi beyond the Wikipedia article, I cannot comment on the accuracy of Bay’s treatment of the actual events. What I can do is comment on how well the 13 Hours tells its version of the story, and why it is so uneven.
At the most basic level of cinematic storytelling Bay’s 13 Hours fails because it is difficult to see what is actually going on. The shaky camera is out of control and it honestly makes it difficult tell who is moving where. Any time there is action—being an action film this is frequent—the camera begins to have a mind of its own. In one particular scene before the attacks, Jack and Rone accompany a female CIA operative (Sona Jillani) into the city to meet one of her contacts. There are other security men scattered around the square where they are eating, and some fishy activity leads to their quick exit to getaway cars. While I can try to conjecture why they were concerned and what they think these bad guys were up to, none of this is really clear in the film. Instead the music soars, the camera shakes, and the actors furl their brows. This invention of tension is as confusing as it is inefficient. I was left confused, and not at all more anxious about their safety.
In terms of performance, the best I can say is that it is serviceable. Krasinski’s longing for home is predictable, but also endearing. The dialogue he is given, however, left him no room for subtlety or saccharine-free honesty. This means we are left with a good actor trying his best with bad writing.
While I may have expected more issues with Bay’s treatment of the Libyans, his attempt at even handedness is transparent and shallow. He shows local shepherds and children playing soccer, but not nearly as many times as he shows complacent locals not joining the Americans to fight against their own people. The security forces are constantly amazed by the lack of engagement with the peaceful locals, never once thinking that perhaps these people have had enough war in their lives and they are just trying to sit this round out.
Bay also includes a scene that directly compares these Gaddafi loyalists with their Muslim religion. Morning prayer next to their stacks of semiautomatic weapons is shown without irony or awareness, and yet the armament of the Americans is never reflected in a similar light.
Even with these issues, the worst crime against Libyan representation in 13 Hours has to be a refrain that is uttered at least three times in the film, “It is different over here; you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.” I’m not sure which version of America Michael Bay lives in, but in my Boston neighborhood I can’t tell who is good or who is bad by their skin color either.
Politics aside, 13 Hours is just a dull and poorly assembled grab for ticket sales. The film is visually hard to follow, never fully invests in its characters, and never gets the audience to do the same. Should you decide to skip this one—and you should skip this one—you will not miss a thing.
Director: Michael Bay
James Badge Dale
Film Length: 144 minutes
Release Date: January 15, 2016
Distributor: Paramount Pictures