The word subtle is never used in reference to Michael Bay. On film the “Transformers” filmmaker has never left a bullet unfired or ever met a building he didn’t want to blow up. His films are frenetic odes to carnage and his latest one, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” takes a page out of the recent past and gives it the Bay Bias.
Based on the 2013 nonfiction book “13 Hours” by Mitchell Zuckoff, the bulk of the film takes place on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Rone Woods (James Badge Dale), Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), Oz Geist (Max Martini), Bub Doherty (Toby Stephens), Tanto Paronto (Pablo Schreiber) and Boon (David Denman) are tough guys with 1000 yards stares. They are former Navy SEALS, Marine Force Recon and Army Special Forces now working as CIA security contractors in in Benghazi, Libya in a top-secret facility so undercover it doesn’t officially exist.
The city is a hellhole known as the most violent place on earth. When well-armed Libyan militants—using weapons pilfered from former Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi’s abandoned arsenals—invade the American embassy the contractors, located about a mile away from the attack, want to help but are ordered to stand down by their on-site CIA chief. As the fighting intensifies they spring into action—“Things change fast in Benghazi,” they snarl.—launching a rescue mission for ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and Foreign Service Information officer Sean Smith.
There’s more—things blow up and bullets fly—and it is public record, but there will be no spoilers here.
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a fast and furious look at an event the ripples of which are still being felt today, but this is a Michael Bay movie so it is unburdened by the weight of controversy. Instead the politics are downplayed—there is no mention of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama—and it is presented as an action film.
On that level it works. Bay knows how to build tension and entertain the eye. He indulges his artier side with some beautifully composed photography and throws in some interesting details to bring the action alive. For instance, the city is such a chaotic place the locals barely notice the mounting violence as they watch soccer as buildings explode just down the block. “Just another Tuesday night in Benghazi,” says Da Silva.
Unfortunately Bay is so in love with his images he drops the ball on the story. This is a tale of men who stepped up and put their lives on the line despite bureaucratic interference. The contractors should be complex characters, balancing their stateside lives with their training as warriors and while the movie tries to explore that divide, it does so in the most Michael Bay way as possible. Instead of investigating the things that drive them we are treated to an sketchy subplot regarding Da Silva’s family that sheds little light on how his job affects his wife and daughters or vice versa. No amount of scenes showing these men Skyping with their families or lovingly gazing at photos of their babies will do enough to humanize them when they are so underwritten. Bay emphasizes the action in Benghazi, but choses to ignore the emotional side except in the most superficial of ways.
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” could have been a fascinating and timely study of men juggling their jobs with complicated families lives but instead it is just another Michael Bay movie.