Films about modern American military engagements often follow the same model of trying to graft heroic narratives onto stories about failure. Black Hawk Down detailed the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Lone Survivor dramatized an unsuccessful counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. American Sniper was a dark work about the psychological toll of warfare.
The story Michael Bay tackles in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is as notorious by now as it’s grim: the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Libya in which a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died. Like other directors in the genre, Bay’s primary goal is to tell a jingoistic story of bravery against all odds. He’s tried this in the past, notably with Pearl Harbor, a film that documented the devastating Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Navy and somehow tried to turn it into a gung-ho tale of victory. With 13 Hours, he’s grown subtler and more cynical, and has produced a better film (the bar being admittedly low) that’s focused on the minutiae of the Benghazi attack and the CIA contractors who fought off Libyan insurgents in the hours after the initial attacks.
The heroism here is embodied by those contractors, not the government employees who largely serve as nuisances and incompetent distractions. While it’s hard to discern a clear message from the movie outside of “Americans good, terrorists bad,” there’s an edge to Bay’s devoted individualism. Here are the people who knew best what to do, 13 Hours tells its audience. If only they’d been allowed to do it sooner.
It’s worth noting that Bay’s long been slavishly devoted to America’s public servants, from the Miami cops of Bad Boys to the NASA team of Armageddon (aided by private oil drillers, sure) to the U.S. military (the stars of Pearl Harbor and the Transformers series). But his last movie, the atrocious Transformers: Age of Extinction, cast the CIA as villains led by a paranoid Kelsey Grammer, working to undo American interests from the inside. In 13 Hours, by contrast, the CIA aren’t evil, but they’re a huge nuisance: gumming up the works in Libya, seemingly failing to provide any kind of warning about the attacks, and not letting the film’s heroes do their jobs.
Bay’s analysis of overseas diplomacy doesn’t amount to much beyond that, partly because 13 Hours’ script, based on a 2014 book of the same name by Mitchell Zuckoff, only attempts to give a straightforward account of what happened on the ground in Benghazi, while taking a number of liberties with details established by ongoing investigations into the attacks. Like Zuckoff, Bay focuses wholly on six CIA contractors, so there are no fictionalized phone calls from Hillary Clinton or conspiratorial whispers about Barack Obama. Still, when trouble hits, the crack team of contractors stationed at a CIA annex near the ambassador’s residence ask to dive right into the action, and the CIA station chief (played by a stammering David Costabile) tells them to back off. By the end of the night, everyone is openly regretting that call.
Among the contractors are the straight-arrow new arrival Jack Da Silva (an absurdly muscular but no less deadpan John Krasinski), the wildcat leader Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), and the wisecracking Kris Paronto (Pablo Schreiber). They’re all military veterans who’ve found their way into the more lucrative field of military contracting—quasi-governmental employees who don’t seem to have a designated space in the chain of command. You could be charitable and interpret 13 Hours as a critique of the convoluted way in which America organizes its military, and the crossed wires of intelligence and defense that contributed to the confusion on that day. But there isn’t enough in the film about where these guys fall in the grand scheme of things, just grousing from the contractors about how they know best, how the situation in Libya is a powder keg waiting to blow, and how nobody’s prepared for it.
They aren’t wrong—but once things kick into high gear about an hour in, politics largely drops out of the conversation. 13 Hours clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, and much of the 90-minute, extended-action setpiece that closes the movie involves the film’s heroes shooting down bad guys from afar, dodging RPGs, and bemoaning the generally screwed-up state of affairs on the ground—which hardly justifies the running time. Amid the action, there are touches of bleak humor from the ensemble, who are uniformly solid, macho, and very bearded, but there’s little sense of human tragedy.
As the film winds to a close and the heroes prepare to ship out, one looks back over his shoulder and tosses off the line, “This country’s gotta figure this shit out,” as if that counts as advice. What’s Bay’s take on the loss of life at Benghazi? It was bad, and possibly avoidable—but hey, Libya sure is a messed-up country. People cried “too soon” at the idea of a Benghazi movie coming out just a few years after the attacks, and they were right to, not just for reasons of sensitivity. Ultimately, the U.S. doesn’t have nearly enough perspective or hindsight to place these events in a context worth examining artistically, so all Bay can do is stage some gnarly fire-fights, praise the gumption of his main characters, and shrug his shoulders at the rest. 13 Hours presents itself as a straightforward war film, but that’s the last thing a subject this complex needed.