'13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi': Film Review

High on action, low on nuance.
1/15/2016

Michael Bay's latest action extravaganza portrays the deadly 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Libya.

The vast and underserved heartland audience that made such a smash out of American Sniper a year ago finally has some fresh red meat to call its own in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Michael Bay's latest in-between-Transformers picture actually features just as much action as his giant toy extravaganzas, being an account of the waves of intense firefights that occurred at the American compound in Libya's second city on Sept. 11-12, 2012. The big selling point of Mitchell Zuckoff's book about the incident, which cost the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others, was its revelation of the hitherto-unknown role special ops played in holding marauding local radicals at bay until all American personnel could be evacuated.

But while this adaptation superficially goes out of its way to avoid being overtly political, its patriotic tenor is as unmistakable as its sentimentality. Even if an unmentioned Hillary Clinton has nothing specific to worry about in regard to the film's content, its mere existence will stir up fresh talk about her behavior regarding the incident, and there's no doubt that Donald Trump fans will eat this up more enthusiastically than anyone.

Although it was never presented as such in news accounts, the siege on the diplomatic enclave and the secret CIA facility a mile away resembles in its dramatization nothing so much as the battle of the Alamo, albeit with a better ending as far as the Americans were concerned. As with so many accounts of Western involvement in the Middle East and other regions — Black Hawk Down, for starters — this is the story of a fiasco, one made less so by the fierce and selfless commitment of a few good men whose old-fashioned, kick-ass attitudes form the crux of the yarn's appeal.

Anything remotely relating to the ongoing controversy over then-Secretary of State Clinton's actions, emails and what she knew when remains implicit; when it's stated that both American diplomatic outposts in anarchic, post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya, including the relevant one in Benghazi, were among the 12 such sites on the worldwide “critical” list, meaning they were inadequately secured and vulnerable to attack, one is nonetheless left to ponder where the buck stops on this sort of thing.

In any event, the government's answer is to supply a Band-Aid in the form of several “private security officers,” the first among equals being former Navy SEAL Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who leaves his family behind one more time to take on a precarious assignment. This Davy Crockett analogue is surrounded by five other guys with nicknames like Tig and Boon and Tanto and Oz played by buff 30-ish actors whose bushy beards make it next to impossible to tell them apart. But, this being a Michael Bay movie, we can rest assured that they're all tough, potty-mouthed and at their best when sporting night-vision goggles and handling multiple forms of heavy artillery.

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Despite the well-conveyed sense of danger that seems to lurk down every street (some of Bay's best work comes in multiple scenes of vehicles becoming trapped by would-be enemies), suspicious characters seen photographing the Yank facilities and the well-known proliferation of competing gangster and/or radical Islamist factions, official American naivete about such matters prevails from the outset. The CIA, led locally by a hard-headed, by-the-book chief (David Costabile), loftily proclaims that, “There is no real threat here,” while Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives to make a ludicrously optimistic speech about future prospects.

The Americans advisedly lay low on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and the day passes uneventfully. The night, however, is another matter. Aided by missiles, a mob attacks the compound at dusk, setting parts of it afire. Confusion reigns: Ambassador Stevens and his aide Sean Smith (Christopher Dingli) are separated from the security force and retreating to a safe room doesn't protect them from the heavy smoke that seeps in under the door (Stevens was determined to have died from smoke inhalation). The closest other Americans are 400 miles away in Tripoli and the nearest Air Force jets are based in Sicily; there's no help to be had.

Although terrible damage has been done, the invaders are eventually repulsed by the small band of Americans doing some very expert shooting. Fighting continues on the streets in scenes that carry a violent video game feel, a new wave of marauders is turned back and, as at the Alamo, a period of low-simmering anxiety permeates the night as a follow-up bombardment is awaited.

On the plus side, the logistics of the situation are well conveyed; the position of the compound on the edge of the city, the considerable distance between the two American buildings and their easy accessibility by would-be troublemakers due to their being bordered by public streets — all this is clearly presented.

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On the other hand, there is a noticeable absence of dramatic modulation. To complain about this sort of stylistic shortcoming in a Transformers movie would seem akin to faulting a dish at Denny's for a lack of subtle seasoning. But in this context, and given the solidly constructed and reasonably comprehensive script by Chuck Hogan (The Town), it's easier to see what Bay's style is all about, which is achieving a high level of intensity and then keeping it there, without variance. To use what, under the circumstances, is a far too convenient metaphor, Bay is interested in accelerating from zero to 100 as quickly as possible and then maintaining speed, rather than skillfully shifting gears and adjusting based on curves, hills and road conditions. In this case, he gets you there, but you know the ride could have been a lot more varied and nuanced.

Just as the sun begins to rise, the mob launches a well-aimed mortar attack from just outside the nearby gates, which is met by ferocious retaliation from the special ops. Little is spared in terms of showing what very high-caliber ammo can do to a human body, and there is no doubt that combat and weapons freaks will get off on the comprehensive and detailed display of the latest equipment. At one point, Bay can't resist repeating a shot he introduced in Pearl Harbor that shows a large mortar shell falling slowly and then exploding.

The film's worst moments reside in its cheap bids at sentiment in some of the men's brief exchanges with distant loved ones, its calculated and banal paeans to family life expressed via video links. Unlike American Sniper, this film doesn't bring up, much less explore, the tension within many men between the lure of danger and excitement and the longing for intimacy and home.

Indistinct as some of them are within the group setting, the actors do their tough and gruff stuff perfectly well, led by Krasinski and James Badge Dale. As very few would claim to know what Benghazi actually looks like, one can only presume that the vivid and evocative locations in Malta and Morocco serve their purpose very well, while production designer Jeffrey Beecroft's reproduction of the American compound appears accurate down to the smallest detail. All craft contributions are robust, while the musical score by Lorne Balfe achieves some weird and creepy effects.

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Distributor: Paramount
Production: 3 Arts Entertainment, Bay Films
Cast: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, Toby Stephens, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, David Denman, David Giuntoli, David Costabile, Demetrius Gross, Alexia Barlier, Christopher Dingli
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Chuck Hogan, based on the book
13 Hours by Mitchell Zuckoff and members of the Annex Security Team
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Costume designer: Deborah Lynn Scott
Editors: Pietro Scalia, Calvin Wimmer
Music: Lorne Balfe
Casting: Denise Charmian, Edward Said

Rated R, 144 minutes

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