The newest film from Michael Bay, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (thankfully that awful subtitle is not part of the film’s title shot), is a fascinating case study. The film is obviously political, but not in a way that those who associate the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 with a vast cover up by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would expect. The film does not follow a partisan agenda, but does have other political issues on its mind.
13 Hours is a very ‘boots on the ground’ look at those events, opening with some background information on the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the chaos that followed. The film then picks up with the arrival of Jack Da Silva (an ab-encrusted John Krasinski), an ex-Navy SEAL turned private contractor who joins a security team protecting a secret CIA base on a rented estate in Benghazi. We see more of Silva’s orientation to the situation in Benghazi, his relationships with his fellow contractors Rone (James Badge Dale), Oz (Max Martini), Boon (David Denman), and others. The film also shows the tenuous relationship with these contractors and the CIA Chief (David Constabile).
The Chief is an interesting character, and where most of the political commentary comes into play. Bay’s cinematic language, as well as the script, seems to want to demonize the Chief. This mostly plays out as the typical Bay “blue collar vs desk jockey” narrative (as most obvious in Armageddon). But he also is the one that utters one of the bigger nods to the post-event controversy, the “stand down” order. Yet nothing that Constabile’s character does seems particularly outrageous given the scope of his job, and a different film would give more weight to his struggle about leaving some Americans to a likely death versus expose more American lives by revealing the CIA base he is running.
But the meat of the film arrives with U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), on a tour of post-Gaddafi Libya hoping to promote goodwill and also provide uses for surplus funds before the end of the fiscal year. Stevens is staying at the State Department’s outpost, just over a mile away from the CIA base, with a small security team. We are treated to a scene of the contractors inspecting the estate and commenting on the minimal security. Then, a few days into the Ambassador’s stay, the compound comes under attack. We see armed men, dressed in a mix of Islamist militant garb and more Western dress like track jackets, storm the compound and begin setting it ablaze. Eventually the CIA contractors join the fight, attempting to get those at the outpost out of harms way. This, in turn, invites an attack on the CIA base itself.
In these sequences, Bay delivers some of the most intricate and fascinating action of his entire career. Where the freneticism of his Transformers films is hard to take in over the course of a too-long summer blockbuster, it serves a purpose in 13 Hours, putting us with these contractors as they experience the confusion of combat when it is impossible to tell the difference between friend and foe. All of this creates a first in a Bay film: tension.
The best sequence in the film is when the contractors attempt to rescue the Ambassador and the State Department detail. The approach of the compound involves street fighting, rocket-propelled grenades bouncing off the street, and loads of uncertainty. All of this is amplified when Silva and company arrive at the compound, where dozens of locals are milling about as the buildings burn. Unable to tell if they are friendly locals or militia men setting a trap, you can feel the unease of the entire situation, leading to a few tense moments where the contractors must err on the side of waiting until the last possible moment to attack any militia members, because the rules for murder are different when you no longer wear a uniform. This feeling is enhanced by Bay's filmmaking, especially the mix of film and digital shooting, which gives the film an intimacy that Bay doesn't usually achieve.
Some of this is undermined in the extensive amount of time that the film spends on the attack of the CIA base, where different contractors are constantly asking the Chief if they should be “expecting friendlies.” Subtle, Michael Bay is not, and it’s a shame that the tension, so visceral the first few times is dry by the end of the film.
The political issues in the film are mostly ones Bay has tackled before. The belief that those in power will exploit those in the lower (nobler) classes. In 13 Hours, this mostly takes the form of the warriors versus desk jockey conflict between the Chief and the contractors. The other is putting the spotlight on the treatment of veterans, a hallmark of Bay's career going back to The Rock, but most recently explored by Bay in Transformers: Age of Extinction. While that film had Optimus Prime and company being literally hunted down by the CIA after their usefulness had run out, 13 Hours spends enough of its time demonstrating why these men, all with families at home, would put their lives on the line for a job. The film treats them as heroes abandoned by their government, either unable to adjust to the real estate market, or unprepared to deal with the economic downturn, falling back on what they know will pay the bills. Even though this blunt approach to the issue leaves out many of the mental issues faced by veterans, it is thankfully a more worthy cause than the controversies that rose out of these events.
Another fascinating entry in Bay’s filmography, 13 Hours is not a masterpiece like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (which is directly referenced in the film), but far superior to Eastwood’s American Sniper. For all of Eastwood’s empathy in Letters from Iwo Jima, that is one area where Michael Bay simply outshines Sniper. Bay’s film never completely demonizes the Libyans in the film, and goes so far as to mourn their deaths as it does of the heroic Americans.
13 Hours opens in Philly theaters today.