Bay’s Best Film In Years
When I defend Michael Bay, people often ask me why defend him? Last year’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” makes it really difficult to do that. However when a film such as “13 Hours: The Secret Solders of Benghazi” comes along I can hold that up an example of why he is worth defending. “13 Hours” isn’t perfect but represents Bay’s best achievement in his filmmaking craft in a long while (since perhaps before the first “Transformers”). Sometimes the movie is too emotionally distant or doesn’t pack the same punch that movies like “Lone Survivor” and “Black Hawk Down” did. But, on its own terms “13 Hours” is an absorbing war film. At times though, “13 Hours” plays it very safe with its war movie clichés.
“13 Hours” is a dramatized recreation of the tragic events of September 11th, 2012. Where, a United States Embassy in Benghazi came under attack from radical forces. It came down to six CIA contractors (in a secret CIA base) to defend them all in a grueling night of relentless attacks.
The word Benghazi almost feels like a dirty word at this point. It’s a word associated with tragedy, death, violence, and political upheaval. The events of that day are still highly controversial and debated. Nearly everyone whose followed the events has an opinion (both logical and emotional). It’s hard to make a movie about the attack in Benghazi without becoming overtly political or angering someone somewhere (no matter which side of the argument you fall under). We saw the movie “Zero Dark Thirty”(a film about the finding and assassination of Osama Bin Laden) fall under major scrutiny with its implications that the CIA’s torture techniques led to the discovery of his whereabouts. If that movie fell under some political anger a movie about Benghazi is only asking for trouble.
However Michael Bay constructs a movie that perhaps wisely doesn’t involve much political and stays away from the political turmoil this event unraveled. The only politics mentioned in the movie is about the political situation in Libya (after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi) and some of the build up to the tragedy. Security was underfunded, no air support, and the best and brightest from Harvard ran the whole operation, that’s as close to any sort of implication Bay draws to in this film. Instead the filmmakers take a “Lone Survivor” approach and focus solely on the soldiers that fought during the battle (recounted in the book it was based off of by Mitchell Zuckoff).
In this approach we see the battle as the six man secret CIA annex security team saw it. The same type of confusion they felt is presented here. The chaotic nature of that night is shown through their eyes. The six man team is fairly standard military characters we’ve seen in other movies. Each one has someone they love, wife, kids, dog, all back home that they are fighting to get home too. Of course the setup is from the real life people who are involved so the movie can be cut some slack in that regard. And, we’ve seen when happens when Bay takes liberties with real life events in the past, the result is “Pearl Harbor” and “Pain and Gain”. “Pearl Harbor” is an epic “Titanic” cash in mess and the other, “Pain and Gain”, I still can’t figure out if I like or not.
The combat scenes are chaotic but in coherent and easy to follow manner. Unlike his some of his “Transformers” features (where you can’t follow any of the action)”13 Hours” gets crazy and sometimes incoherent but it’s very fluid with the tone and the chaos of the combat sequences that Bay produces. Surprisingly Bay holds back from the combat becoming too over the top or extravagant. In many ways this is a benefit but in others it feels like a hindrance, not only the full extent of war to be shown. In any case there are still some terrific set pieces on display here.
Portraying the men in arms is a group of talented actors. Bay assembles a cast of actors that may not be stars but are the right fit for their roles. Pablo Schreiber (“Orange is the New Black”), James Badge Dale (“24” and “Rescue Me”), Max Martini (“Pacific Rim”), Toby Stephans (“Black Sails”), David Costabile , (as the chief), Dominic Fumusa (“Nurse Jackie”), and Alexia Barlier all round out a talented cast that collectively work well together. The cast also includes “Office” star David Denman (the one who didn’t get Pam) and “Office” superstar John Krasinski (the one who did get Pam). Everyone here is just about adequate, and does a fine job. There isn’t many standouts outside of Krasinski who sheds his typecast as Jim from “The Office” into a hardened family solider. His story is the emotional core of this movie and gets the biggest showcase moments to show off his acting ability. As an “Office” fan I was incredibly happy to see him perform so well here, and hope his career can prosper as a result.
“13 Hours” does get you wrapped up in the action, the combat and the men and women who had to survive the situation. It doesn’t paint Libya people in the worst possible light either. The movie makes sure to highlight that many mourned the death of the US ambassador who died there. Along with that , Bay also shows that there were some that stood by the Americans to help. In that, it’s a bit surprising to see some of the subject matter treated with respect and not painting the entire people of Libya with one paint brush.
Beneath the surface of “13 Hours” may not be much. We’ve seen just about everything we see here before (and done better I might add). But, that doesn’t take away that Michael Bay crafted a good and sometimes thoughtful war picture. I know we have to endure one more “Transformers” movie from him (and hopefully he’ll give us a good one) but in the future I want to see more movies like “13 Hours” from Michael Bay. It may not be perfect but it isn’t “Transformers 4”. This, is the world he belongs in.