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