By Simon Cohen and Will Smith
13 Hours tells the story of six independent contractors tasked with defending the secret CIA compound in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. On that day a surprise attack on the U.S. Diplomatic Compound and then a second attack on the covert CIA base claimed the lives of a U.S. Ambassador, a Foreign Service Officer, and two CIA contractors.
Directed by Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Transformers series) I went into 13 Hours expecting three things to be present in this film. My first prediction was a multitude of American flags: filmed in slow motion, filmed against sunsets, filmed with soldiers, and filmed flapping in the wind. My second prediction was that the film would contain an overwhelming amount of over-the-top action. Explosions left and right, everything on screen erupting in a conglomeration of special effects and loud noises. Finally I figured this movie would attempt to make some form of profound political statement on the Benghazi tragedy, either critiquing the political left (we all know who that means) or the political right (a la Clint Eastwood claiming that American Sniper is an “anti-war” film). When 13 Hours reached its conclusion after two hours and twenty six minutes, I was pleasantly surprised.
A word of warning, this is a Michael Bay film true to his usual form. The characters are paper thin in their development (all of them have kids or dogs and make bad jokes so obviously we all care about them now), the writing is fairly mediocre, and the two women in the movie spend their total of maybe 10 minutes of combined screen time bemoaning the lack of “a man in my life” and getting told they need to move to new locations by the other male actors. John Krasinski, (Jim from The Office) plays the main character Jack, an ex-Navy SEAL. While Krasinski certainly buffed up for the role there are flashes of confusion for anyone who has watched The Office of what a paper salesman from Pennsylvania is doing in a firefight in Libya.
Beyond Bay’s expected shortcomings this film felt fairly restrained. There were not American flags plastered everywhere, the explosions were limited and gritty, and a broad political statement was largely ignored. If anything this film did an excellent job putting the viewer in the claustrophobic and confused viewpoint of the six CIA contractors who defended both the diplomatic compound and the CIA base. At one point the lead character says something along the lines of “I don’t know who I am fighting, why I am fighting them, or who I am fighting them for,” and that quote about summarizes the political message of the film. This movie focuses on the confusion felt by the soldiers on the ground, multiplied by a slow disorganized government bureaucracy. Bay also portrays the struggling country of Libya after a violent revolution in a very humanizing way. At the end of the movie a contractor tells the local translator something along the lines of “Get your country to figure this stuff out so everyone stops killing each other” which while not very eloquent shows a concern for the Libyan people. The action sequences are intense and violent, there is no Pearl Harbor or Transformers sugarcoating of the violence and Bay even succeeds in providing a little memorial at the end of the film for the four casualties of that day.
If you are expecting this to be a hilariously over the top ridiculous film in typical Michael Bay fashion, this is not what you are looking for. If anything, Bay felt like he was really trying to convince us that he can be a serious director, which he didn’t totally succeed in, but hey it was better than Transformers 4.