13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is the film adaptation of Mitchell Zuckoff’s nonfiction book, ’13 Hours’, based on the events of the 2012 Benghazi attack. The film is told strictly from the point of view of six G.R.S. operatives that repelled the assault. Perhaps, most noteworthy, is that ’13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’ marks Michael Bay’s return to the genre he started his career with, the military action movie.
The film follows Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), an American private military contractor who heads to politically unstable Libya for a C.I.A. assignment with the Global Response Staff (G.R.S.), there are six members who make up the G.R.S, all are ex-military personnel, one of which is Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods, an old friend of Jack. Their assignment complicates when on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, when the embassy housing the American ambassador to Libya is overrun by Libyan militants, with American military reinforcements hours away, the G.R.S. steps in to attempt a rescue of the ambassador and defend their base against overwhelming odds.
Chuck Hogan’s screenplay is strong, it may come light in character development but the meat is in the blood and thunder narrative, the actual assault does not take place until the middle of the second act but you are never bored, due to the varied plot beats, we see the operatives in action, escorting C.I.A. agents and getting in and out of car chases to lose their tail. When the assault is launched, you are led into a harrowing account of the battle, as the American operators repel wave after wave of Libyan gunmen. It is a nonstop, white knuckled ride.
The narrative does have issues, as mentioned, the character development is flimsy, and does not fully establish the characters. We witness the Americans’ daily lives as G.R.S. security operatives in Benghazi, such as escorting CIA officers to meetings and talking to their families back home on skype. The former is intriguing enough, as we see how the G.R.S. team operate, but the latter seems to be an attempt by Bay to infuse some character into his otherwise faceless (but bearded) American heroes. It succeeds moderately though, as we do feel invested in the character’s survival but it gets old pretty quick when Bay falls back to old habits and overuses plot devices, we are shown every security operator on the team skyping their families, consecutively.
Visually, 13 Hours is textbook Michael Bay. You know his strengths, you know his weaknesses. Fortunately, his style is well suited for the genre. His visceral, quick cut editing allows for maximum impact in every cut, giving the narrative a sensation of unstoppable momentum. The editing is supplemented by Bay’s trademark cinematography; the shallow focus creates a strong sense of claustrophobia as it allows a sense of audience intimacy to creep into the film. You do feel you are in with the soldiers on their long desperate night of battle. The camerawork is kinetic, the camera moves, a lot. When it does not move, it is the mise en scene that moves in place of it, a film that is made of perpetual motion.
While this helps improve the action sequences or dramatic stand offs, it also exposes a problem. Everything moves but they don’t move with a purpose, they move because it looks good moving. The problem occurs when it involves two or more people sitting around a table talking, and it is extremely distracting as it occurs several times. There is a particular scene in the first hour that highlights this recurring problem, John Krasinski’s Jack Da Silva is called into the office of The Chief (David Costabile), while there is a conversation going on, we see, through the window of the office, Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) is in the background working out by lugging large truck tyres around, shouting out his reps, adding nothing to the overall story other than adding another visually interesting element in the background that distracts the viewer and obscuring whatever dialogue we wanted to hear between Jack and The Chief.
Unlike his Transformers films, where the action is disorientating and perplexing puzzle, with giant, predominantly grey robots clashing into each other in an orgy of steel and sparks, leaving the viewer to figure out what is going on. The action in 13 Hours is clear and crisp, bullets fly and bodies fall but there isn’t a point of time you will lose sight of what is happening. If you do, Michael Bay has enough coverage shots to get you covered, don’t worry, there are 2 more after that that will get you up to speed instantly if you are confused with the first shot. Coverage may be a dirty word, but in this case, it adds another alphabet to the explosive visual language of the film, allowing for greater visual legibility.
The performances are great across the board, if similar. James Badge Dale as Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods brings the best of the bunch, exemplifying the no nonsense All-American attitude, able to be grim or humorous depending on the scene, or to contrast with the situation. He is funniest when their predicament worsens. John Krasinski is barely recognizable as Jack Da Silva, providing a layered take to the archetypical concept of the disillusioned warrior out for one last op. The rest of the security contractors, played by Max Martini, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa and Pablo Schreiber all put in realistic performances as soldiers, filled with military bluster and badassery.
The Chief, played by David Costabile, is like every Michael Bay diplomat/pencil pusher in every Michael Bay movie, except this time, Hogan’s screenplay gives a proper reason as to why bureaucracy isn’t working. Pompous, conceited and he views the G.R.S. as all brawn no brains ‘security guards’, he is also weak willed and hapless when the shit eventually hits the fan, having to rely on ‘Rone and the rest of the G.R.S. to save the day. It is a time honoured Bay tradition of muscle, machismo and guns trumping diplomacy and paperwork.
The heroes may be in full view but the concept of the villain is murkier, the Libyan gunmen are surely the bad guys but they do not come across as the villains, instead serving the unfortunate purpose of bullet fodder. We do not know anything about them or their motivations, other than they really want to kill everyone in the compound. American bureaucracy though, serves as the primary instigator of conflict in the film, as every form of military assistance from gunships to air strikes are rejected, leaving the compound and its inhabitants to fend for themselves against wave after wave of enemies. It is extremely reminisce of popular first person shooter videogames, many which have game modes that involves a similar ‘Last Stand’ premise. This is Call of Duty in cinematic form.
When the dust has settled and the smoke cleared, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is one of Michael Bay’s best, it has all the ‘Bayism’ that make Michael Bay films such unique box office entertainment and coupled with the strong screenplay, it negates most of what are Bay’s notorious weaknesses.
Despite a few signature hiccups Bay is known for, the film soars as an action thriller, due to its frenetic visuals, intense action sequences and robust screenplay.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/