Movie Review - 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
By Ben Gruchow
January 25, 2016

Oh, no. We're in a Michael Bay movie.

What, exactly, was the point of this movie? 13 Hours is 144 minutes of cinema overclocked at all times: shot with a toxic combination of long-exposure digital-video blurriness and nauseating handheld camerawork, and stylized to within an inch of its life by director Michael Bay. It addresses the tragic and violent 2012 Benghazi attacks with a battering ram of pyrotechnics and frenetically choreographed action scenes, while making way for a few moments of clarity and poignancy. Against many of my expectations, it is not nearly as repellent as the trailers and promotional material made it out to be, but this still places the movie far south of sound judgment.

There is also something to be said for how pointedly the movie explicates where its priorities lie, and for being probably the most cinematically functional thing Bay has produced since 2005's The Island. But there's more to be said for how much this effort bungles just about every chance at characterization or pathos, or even sustained investment in the scenario. All this time and money really proves by the end credits is that Bay can't think of a genre or topic that wouldn't benefit from photogenic chaos, and it serves as a pointed riposte to the concept that something is inherently better just because it plainly says what it thinks.

The movie is about nothing more and nothing less than the immediate hours before, during, and after the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. We are given surrogacy through this world by way of six security contractors, portrayed by actors who look vaguely like their real-life counterparts and a lot more like individuals chosen for their physique and the amount of facial hair they were willing to grow for the part. In the early passages of the film, we see them interact, crack jokes, and exchange terse, trailer-friendly one-liners when the situation calls for it, or when it doesn't. The characters are not dimensional or nuanced, despite the screenplay's occasional half-hearted feints toward profundity.

These are meant to be bonding moments, and I'll grant the movie this: it does far better establishing these individuals as likable individuals than it had to, or than it seemed it would based on the choice of Bay as director, who seems to generally equate speed-rapping and volume with wit and development. Less surprising is the movie's front-and-center placement of masculine aggression and idealism as staples of virtuous character shading. This is a technique we have seen before, sometimes in a satirical sense and sometimes in a serious one. It's not often that it's as deliriously overbaked as it is here, although I stress that I'm not sure there'd be any way for this particular film to function as made without that type of basic, broad communication.

We are given a countdown timer, of sorts, letting us know as we get closer to the moment on September 11th when the first attack begins. From that point on, it's more or less one extended violent skirmish after another, tracing the crucial events from the diplomatic outpost to the CIA compound a short distance away. There are disturbing images here, containing real power; a shot of militants overrunning the outpost grounds by the dozens is hugely chilling. We know that the ambassador and diplomat who lost their lives here took refuge in the outpost's bathroom, and they were smoked out. This moment and several others during this passage of the film are tense and effective in their own self-contained way.

There are isolated moments after this that contain the same dreadful power, where 13 Hours begins to cross a phantom line between expert simulation of violent chaotic tension into the real thing. These moments are without exception the quieter ones, where the filmmakers forgo the conscious effort to amp up the intensity and let the horrific nature of the events themselves dictate tone. There are also moments where the characters breathe a little bit more, and a late exchange between contractors Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), where the movie threatens to come together over the concept of danger and violence as addictive to the participants in equal or similar measure to their desire to be safe with their families.

Had the movie held onto that thought, it would've been a case of “too little, too late”, but it'd have been something. Soon enough, though, we're back to extended volleys of gunfire and mortar rounds, all filmed with an eye toward maximum disorientation. The movie severely backloads all of its most potent material, and by the time we start getting to moments that might carry weight on their own terms, we've been hammered by 110 minutes of slick, loud technique and sloppy filmmaking posing as raw and unfiltered storytelling (in its most sedate moments, the movie still falls victim to Bay's “cut to this angle, and then this angle, and then this angle” aesthetic).

I get the feeling that Bay was going for sensory overload in the audience members, to the point where intensity crosses a fragile line and everything on-screen becomes too much; to the extent that he wanted to depict how unpredictable and asynchronous and claustrophobic that night in Benghazi must have been, it's not a dishonorable goal. This should not be fun to watch, and it isn't. But there are multiple ways to induce that feeling of helplessness and numbness in the audience, and the way taken by 13 Hours is the way that happens to be the easiest and the least effective in the long term: by simple audiovisual bludgeoning.

The movie is loud, it's bloody, and it's grim. But it's all of these things in a profoundly commercial and staged way. Every shot, even the most hectic, manages to be precisely lit with the “right” contrasts of blue and green and yellow and orange, and the dirt and blood on cast members never sells itself as anything beyond expertly-applied makeup. The “raw” video aesthetics are regularly betrayed by elaborate aerial craning, dollying, and tracking camera moves. Let's ignore the slick technique, then; the movie rests much of its conflict and suspense on an assertion (regarding a potentially quicker response time to the initial attack) that is supported largely on circumstantial evidence or even outright falsehood.

The moment we consider the likelihood that the immediate response to the Benghazi events was a humane one, born from military protocol, practiced caution, and an imperative not to incur greater risk to a larger number of people (as opposed to academic disregard or cowardice, which is what 13 Hours very strongly implies), any larger point here sort of winks out. We are left then with two hours of manufactured action, suspicion, and (at the end) cynicism, with a movie that can't support any of those feelings with much substance. It is an unpleasant time at the theater, and not for the right reasons.