Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, 2016, dir. Michael Bay

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Maybe Obama should have postponed his final State of the Union until after the premiere of Michael Bay’s latest fascist masterwork. At least then, Ted Cruz would have been too busy sitting in an empty theater with his pants around his ankles to offer response. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (henceforth referred to solely as 13 Hours, because I’m not typing that damn title out again) is many things – a factually fuzzy account of the 2012 Benghazi attack, a cinematic football to match the political football the attack has been turned into since, a macho pronouncement by leading man John Krasinski – but if you add those things together, you have a film that’s guaranteed a top five spot in 2016’s ugliest releases. Here, that ugliness refers to the movie’s moral and aesthetic value alike. 13 Hours is repugnant to consider and hideous to look at. It is vile, outside and in.

It is also, against all odds, a major fucking flop. If you expected a Bay joint to perform as well in the movies’ annual dumping ground as Clint Eastwood’s infinitely superior American Sniper did this time last year, well, you weren’t alone. Everybody did. Bay movies typically do big money, especially when they’re about big spectacle at the expense of brains. Look at the Transformers franchise. Each of those manages to rake in hoozamajillions of dollars despite (or more likely because of) the fact that they are just two hour toy commercials. If you strip the giant robots out of them, maintain the military jingoism, and wrap that around a very real tragedy that killed very real people, you’re left with what looks like a pile of easy off-season money.

But audiences didn’t rally around 13 Hours, possibly because the America that is eager to be pandered to by deceptive horseshit like this has a much smaller population than most of us realize. If you listen to Fox, the movie’s failure to sell tickets is all the fault of critics. Maybe that’s true; critics hated it. Maybe it isn’t true. But if you can claim responsibility for movies like 13 Hours failing, maybe you shouldn’t, because you’ll just be in bad company. (See: career dickhead Patrick J. Lynch.) Whatever the reasons for 13 Hours‘ crash may be, it isn’t a very good movie, so ultimately ticket sales and revenue are kind of beside the point. 

You probably know all about 13 Hours and why everybody hates it already. Mostly that has to do with the film’s politics, which Bay alleges it lacks. But you cannot make a war movie that is apolitical. Hell, you can’t make a movie that is apolitical. All art, to varying degrees, is political, after all, and so a movie that chronicles the events leading up to the horrific violence visited upon the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi four years ago is by nature highly political. In that respect, Bay might have been better served through honesty. Had he come out swinging with a naked political bias, had he stated at the outset that he means 13 Hours as a blockbusting indictment of Hillary Clinton, well, critics (and cinephiles, who are frequently liberal-minded) probably still would have hated it – but they might have hated it less, so take that for what it’s worth.

So divorce 13 Hours from its politics (or lack thereof (but not really)). Forget that the film has David Costabile issue the “stand down” order that every credible investigation into the incident has shown was never actually issued, or that the script drops a bunch of thinly veiled references to Clinton’s culpability in the whole catastrophe, or that the ultimate message of the film is that brave soldiers > Harvard educated nerds (though those brave soldiers were, in fact, security contractors, so whatever). If you take all of the film’s political trappings away, all you have is a mediocre war movie made with a grand total of zippety-do in the craft department. That’s it. You don’t even get more than a handful of decent performances from the cast, comprised of Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, and Dominic Fumusa as the military types who save the day when Benghazi falls under attack; Costabile as the CIA station chief who looks down his nose at the military types until things start exploding, at which point impotence is the only freedom left him; and that’s pretty much it. Dale is fine. Martini is a monument of manliness. Schreiber is Schreiber, which is good fun if you ever thought seeing Orange is the New Black‘s Pornstache in a shootout would constitute “fun.” Krasinski, bulked up beyond all reckoning for his performance, is ostensibly here to bring a human element to 13 Hours‘ carnage, but he doesn’t have much of a character to work with, so his presence ends up feeling like a novelty act.

It takes about an hour for these cardboard cutouts to start shooting things up, give or take, and once that happens, 13 Hours falls into incoherence. It is nigh-impossible to tell who the fuck is shooting at who, or when, or with what. “But that’s the point, man! To recreate the confusion of the attack!” you might say. This is a fair critique, or it would be if 13 Hours was the type of film where confusing the audience supplemented the storytelling in any quantifiable way, but it isn’t, so it doesn’t. 13 Hours is an action movie. It needs recognizable action. This is a film in the grand tradition of stuff like Olympus Has FallenAssault on Precinct 13, and even The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, whose iconic third act battle, the Battle of Helm’s Deep, provides an unanticipated blueprint for Bay’s mayhem. But these movies each court our political sensitivities by being genuinely good at what they’re supposed to be. 13 Hours could have been a perfectly serviceable modern war flick with political leanings if Hollywood thought to put it in the hands of a director worthy of the material.

Bay knows how to do crazy well – Bad Boys 2 is, in point of fact, a classic of its genre – but he doesn’t know how to do nuance well, or humanism, and a story like 13 Hours, inked in the blood of the fallen, demands both of these. Paying tribute to our soldiers is a fine and noble thing, but they deserve better than nationalist cacophony.

*1/2

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2 thoughts on “Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, 2016, dir. Michael Bay

  1. Pingback: Review: The Hollars, 2016, dir. John Krasinski | A Constant Visual Feast

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