13 Hours/2 1/2 Palm trees
By Eduardo Victoria
After defining a distinct type of action blockbuster, polluting the world with transformer films and becoming a defacto scapegoat for disgruntled movie nerds, slacker auteur Michael Bay’s sets his sights on the infamous 2012 Benghazi attacks with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Though his filmography is highly hit-and-miss, the one constant throughout Bay’s career has always been his transparency.
For better or worse, the director has never hid behind subtlety and always worn his heart on his sleeve. It’s this trait, coupled with his unparalleled talent for cinematic chaos that makes Bay’s latest dip into historical provocation unrelentingly aggressive but surprisingly human.
The story picks up in 2012, amidst the chaos of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, as Libya’s government struggles to find stability and turf wars rage between warring militias. Amongst the fallout remain two American outposts, one serving as a diplomatic haven, and another, as a C.I.A. compound stocked with ex-secret service security contractors and intelligence agents. Timed to coincide with a visit from U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Islamic militants attack Stevens at the diplomatic compound, initiating a vicious attack which will spiral into something much bigger. Watching from afar, six security members from the neighboring C.I.A. compound rush to his aid, navigating a city in which friend and foe are virtually indistinguishable.
Rather than attempting to dissect the obfuscated fact and fiction of the Benghazi attacks, Bay keeps things simple, parlaying his military fetishism for an intimate story of the six men who laid their lives on the line for their fellow countrymen. After quickly establishing the danger of Banghazi’s fallen city, Bay takes time to flesh out his characters, the lives and families they’ve left behind for the job and their camaraderie with one another. Needless to say, it’s a move that pays off, allowing the film its humanity and giving us a reason to emotionally invest once the bullets start flying. Even then, fierce dogfights are contrasted with fleeting moments of solidarity between the team and little touches of heart, such as a character trying to upload a message to his family, before an oncoming storm of enemies approach. It’s baseline character work, I know, but it works in a way that’s primal and visceral, going hand in hand with the characters’ do-or-die predicament.
The other thing the film has going for it is its unrelenting sense of chaos and mayhem (or Bayhem, as you can call it). Say what you will about Bay’s films, there’s no denying the craftsmanship behind his staged action sequences, even when they don’t work in service to a story or are stuck in a bad film. Given this film’s straightforward premise, Bay masterfully orchestrates a progressive series of confusing encounters and battles which are genuinely gritty, brutal and well-staged, diving headfirst into an abyss of political red tape and fully accepting of the day’s rapid-fire developments.
The cast is okay enough as well, with James Badge Dale’s “Rone” Woods heading up the team with John Krasinski’s Jack De Silva and others in toe. It’s worthy to note that these men and cast aren’t as grating as most of the characters in Bay’s films, and it isn’t hard to care for them when they start to suffer. They’re all convincing as normal guys who just want to do the right thing.
Bay’s latest offering may be the biggest evidence yet that he’s a director who frustratingly holds back in order to deliver fluff – but then again, the film’s very existence shows that he can say something when he wants to. Though apolitical on surface level, Bay’s take on the material suggests an ironically conservative perspective, which in turn, also happens to be the perfect vehicle for his patented brand of muscular spectacle. At the very least, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a pulse pounding thriller that laments the loss of life on both sides of a cloudy war, and is already getting people to talk about more than alien robots or Victoria’s Secret models.
Rated R. 144 minutes. Now playing at Cinemark Downtown 10.