13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, 2016.
Directed by Michael Bay.
Starring John Krasinski, Max Martini, James Badge Dale, Freddie Stroma and Toby Stephens.
Over the course of one hot, desperate night, a team of covert American military defence contractors must protect a secret CIA compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi from a wave of jihadists…
Michael Bay is a truly pernicious, right-wing filmmaker. He’s Clint Eastwood without either the old school charm or talent. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt, even though you likely suspected it for quite some time. It’s one thing for Bay to make loud, noisy trash such as the Transformers franchise, or even morally repulsive character drama like Pain & Gain, but when he makes a picture like 13 Hours and fumbles his way into modern geopolitics, you just want to take away his license to foist cinema upon the general public, because in a world where people don’t need any more of an excuse to hate and vilify the Middle East, it’s actually quite a dangerous piece of jingoistic American rhetoric; the kind of film you could imagine Donald Trump making the population watch at his inauguration as he straps them down like droogs, forcing open their eyes to watch the horror show. It’s not that as a piece of filmmaking it’s without any sense of structural ability or merit, it’s simply ugly to anyone who abhors violent solutions to complicated political situations.
The response no doubt would be from Bayhem apologists that it’s a ‘true story’, and that’s certainly the case on a technical level, but despite what Bay may say it’s almost impossible for real life to have been quite this gung-ho and pro-American as his film depicts. Screenwriter Chuck Hogan (who is better than this enterprise) adapted Mitchell Zuckoff’s book recounting the Benghazi events without an eye for the political, simply recounting the Alamo-esque under siege battle the team of covert defence contractors in the city faced over that time period, but while Bay simply may be trying to match the book’s action-fuelled stance, even in his usual hollow noise he can’t help but make an undercurrent of a political statement.
The script constantly refers to the Libyan militia as ‘the bad guys’ with almost no attempt to flesh them out as anything other than ‘those gun-totin’ Ayrabs’ you might hear bullish, ill-educated Americans loudly decry. The relatively decent cast of players including James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Toby Stephens (though God knows why he was cast in this role) & Max Martini don’t disgrace themselves, trying to find character points and beats in the real-life soldiers they play, but they’re so full of arrogant bravado anyone looking for a deeper exploration of the conflict in Libya will almost instantly be frustrated at how one note the portrayal of these men are. Krasinski’s John Silva, in a rare moment of clarity, does admittedly make the point they’re fighting a war they don’t understand in a country they don’t care about, but that’s not enough – make *me* care.
Bay doesn’t care about making me care though, or you, or anyone else. 13 Hours isn’t quite as lusciously pornographic in the director’s love of hardware and machinery as usual, probably because he’s recounting a true story, but his camera pores over the seriously hardcore weaponry the GRS contractors use in their defence of the compound on a frequent basis. Muslim ‘jihadists’ are picked off with Call of Duty-style, gleeful and bloody abandon by the US firepower, Bay not hesitating to show limbs being torn off or waves of Libyans being gunned down by the superior American defence. He kindly gives one small montage over to Muslim wives and mothers mourning their dead. When his own American cast are injured or killed, he devotes the final third of the screen time to lingering, mournful scenes or reminders these guys were ‘true American heroes’ fighting in a lost land.
That’s the real point Bay and Hogan’s script are making – what are these men fighting for? Who are they fighting for? Silva’s family are depicted as struggling without him back home in the scant characterisation we do get, and Bay’s message is clear – we should get out, not because these people deserve better, but because America shouldn’t care. It’s no wonder Bay made a film about Pearl Harbor because in some strange way there are recurring motifs across time between the two. In the end, for all the attempts at making this a gripping and heartfelt depiction of a dark event in the history of America’s questionable foreign policy, Bay’s shaky, messy, loud, brainless and oily direction just amounts to the usual result – noisy, violent, grainy action with utterly no depth or substance.
That’ll suit some people fine too. If that’s what you want from a Michael Bay film, that’s what you’ll get, and chances are if you’re a fan of Bay that’s what you’ll enjoy. 13 Hours, admittedly, isn’t at all the worst film the director has ever given us – it’s not as blundering or hopelessly thick as other films he’s done, but it’s not nearly as nihilistic as he hopes it may come across, in the vein of chief inspiration Black Hawk Down. Bay may want to convince everyone he’s making a pure action movie, derived from the limited viewpoint of the American soldiers under siege, but make no mistake – this is right wing, American propaganda appealing to a section of the electorate who believe Muslims are the bad guys, and Americans are the good guys, and no shades of grey exist between the two.
In these strange times of confusion, where fear and hysteria and propaganda gain ever more traction, 13 Hours deserves recognising for being proficient, on a technical and visceral level, but utterly abhorrent on a political level, at least from my liberalist perspective. You almost wish Bay had made something as brainless as his usual output.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.