13 Hours has elements of a lean and efficient action/thriller, but is bloated and overblown thanks to Michael Bay’s directorial approach.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi takes us back to the year 2012, as the country of Libya finds itself in a tumultuous state of change following the death of “Colonel” Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (Libya’s main leader/ruler for decades), one year earlier. This is the environment that CIA security contractor and military veteran Jack Silva (John Krasinski) find himself in upon arriving in the Libyan city of Benghazi. There Silva works alongside his fellow contractors – including his old friend Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), in addition to Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and one Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman) – to provide security at a CIA annex, where the Chief (David Constabile) sees the contractors as little more than a last resort should things go wrong, as far as security is concerned.
While Silva and his fellow contractors express their concerns about the protective measures that are in place at the Libyan U.S. diplomatic compound – currently housing one Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) – the compound’s security team offer assurances that the situation is being handled carefully. However, when terrorist militants attack the U.S. compound on the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, things quickly go from bad to worse – and when it becomes clear that the backup will be too late to help, it falls upon Silva and his fellow contractors to launch a desperate rescue mission… even as the militants prepare to attack the Benghazi CIA station next.
Drawing from Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi”, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi offers jingoistic posturing aplenty, yet also skirts around the politics that surround the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks – instead, exploring a Black Hawk Down-style action/thriller narrative that is centered around a small team of ex-military contractors that were involved in the incident. The adapted 13 Hours script penned by Chuck Hogan – the co-creator of The Strain TV show and the author of The Town‘s source material, “Prince of Thieves” – even provides a tightly constructed three-act narrative skeleton for the movie to build upon, with nary a dangling plot thread or extraneous story tangent to be found.
Problem is, 13 Hours also paints the tensions between the contractors and members of the CIA (in particular, the annex Chief) in broad strokes, while at the same time failing to provide enough onscreen development time for the eponymous “Secret Soldiers” to amount to much more than two-dimensional archetypes. Director Michael Bay then stretches the storyline out to encompass a nearly two and a half running time with a focus on generating thrills and suspense – something that makes the film’s already heavy-handed storytelling approach come off all the more ham-fisted, in the process. The end result: 13 Hours resembles a feature film-length version of a season of the TV series Homeland (season 4 in particular), albeit with the CIA drama/thriller show’s best elements (intriguing plot points and character development) having been reduced in order to make more room for additional spectacle and action.
Credit where credit’s due, few directors know how to stage explosion-happy set pieces and/or stylized, yet grounded, action sequences like Bay does, and 13 Hours is evidence of just that. The film in turn combines the aesthetic elements of Bay’s past work (constant fast-paced editing and dynamic camera shot choices/movement) with solid cinematography by Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow) in order to craft combat scenarios and chase sequences that succeed in making the audience feel as though they too are right in the line of fire. 13 Hours‘ approach to re-staging the Benghazi terrorist attack is visually bombastic and spectacle-driven to the point that it becomes ridiculous, in terms of how much explosive action and destruction is actually shown onscreen – and for sure, there are certain moments where Bay unimaginatively recycles his work on films past (in particular, one of the most famous shots from Pearl Harbor is re-used here). Nevertheless, no one Bay-style action as well as Bay himself.
However, Bay is (again) his own worst enemy when it comes to ratcheting up the tension and suspense here. 13 Hours succeed in creating a vision of Benghazi that feels like the setting out of a Western (for better or worse) where danger lurks around ever corner – yet, because virtually every scene in the film is shot and played out with the same over the top style (regardless of the tone or mood it’s going for), the technique becomes more tedious than effective after a while. Moreover, as was indicated before, 13 Hours starts off with an overall tight first act (story-wise and in terms of pacing), before the action then kicks in and carries on for longer than necessary. On the whole, 13 Hours would’ve been better served by additional editing to trim out the excessive spectacle.
The ‘Secret Soldiers’ themselves aren’t developed far beyond recognizable war film genre ‘types’ (the jokester, the family man who can’t leave the war behind him, and so forth), but 13 Hours benefits from having a talented roster of character actor bringing its primary characters to life. The Office alum John Krasinski packed on extra muscle for his role in 13 Hours, though it’s his own dramatic acting skills and screen charisma that serves him best here. Similarly, noteworthy characters actors James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3), Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black), Dominic Fumusa (Nurse Jackie), Max Martini (Pacific Rim) and David Denman (Krasinski’s onetime Office costar) do fine work – lending humanity to the other members of the contracted security team, as does Toby Stephens (Black Sails) in a small role as Global Response Staff officer Glen “Bub” Doherty.
Unfortunately, David Constabile (Low Winter Sun, Suits) can only do so much to elevate the character of CIA Chief “Bob” above being a glorified (and sniveling) obstacle holding the ‘Secret Soldiers’ back from saving the day properly in 13 Hours; the same holds true for other members of the CIA in the film, as played by such folk as Alexia Barlier (The Missionaries) and Freddie Stroma (Pitch Perfect). While most of the native Libyans in the film – be they terrorists, allies to the ‘Secret Soldiers’, or just residents who get caught in the cross-fire – are depicted as one-note stereotypes, Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) does solid and sympathetic work in the role of Amahl, a Libyan aide who does his best to help, even once the bloodshed starts to unfold around him.
13 Hours has elements of a lean and efficient action/thriller, but is bloated and overblown thanks to Michael Bay’s directorial approach. The film will no doubt prompt debates about how it portrays the events of the 2012 Libyan terrorist attack and what its political message (or lack thereof) means, but that will have more to do with the people having the debate – rather than anything that the movie itself actually has to offer on the subject. Indeed, 13 Hours is more mature than most of Bay’s recent work solely because the bar has been set so low; thus, while some filmgoers will enjoy 13 Hours and appreciate its grisly portrayal of militaristic combat, other hoping the the film’s subject matter would elevate it above being mindless action movie entertainment are likely to wind up being disappointed.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 144 minutes long and is Rated R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language.
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