“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” Movie Review


     In the hands of a more capable filmmaker, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” likely would have been a classic and important war movie.  The kind that would have garnered comparison to Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” or Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, both of which allotting considerable screen time to the exploration and development of the characters, giving the inevitable action sequences significant emotional heft.  When you see director Michael Bay’s name headlining a film, there really shouldn’t be any surprise as to what you should expect.  With Bay at the helm, “13 Hours” plays more like 2012’s Navy SEAL recruitment ad “Act of Valor”, with its non stop video game like action that will certainly please those “Call of Duty” and NRA types out there who crave this sort of fire power as entertainment.  And that’s the underlying issue with this whole thing.  The horrific events that occurred on September 11-12, 2012 at the U.S. State Department Outpost in Libya, resulting in the loss of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, shouldn’t be viewed in a film as entertainment.  

     The brave men who stepped up that night and defended both the U.S. Outpost and the CIA Annex, thus allowing for some two dozen plus Americans to be evacuated the next morning, deserve a far more telling account focused on the specific actions and operations conducted by the CIA in the days and weeks leading up to the incident.  Instead, we get fragmented sentences designed as place holders to let the audience know “The White House has been notified.”, said as Bay quick cuts to an aerial shot of the White House and then moves on a second later to more car chases, gun battles, and explosions.  Ironically, it’s the film’s protagonists that seem to interrupt the small parts of the story that may have been paramount in giving it a more investigative tone.  Twice in the first act, the CIA , led by Bob (David Costabile), the CIA Station Chief, assigns his team of former Special Ops and now civilian contracted security operators to provide security for his agents as they conduct meetings with informers who likely are playing both sides.  These scenes would have been a step in the right direction, uncovering the backroom deals and the war torn politics of the country, but each is interrupted in favor of the security team intervening and Bay staging yet another action scene.  It’s as if not a single character in the film can bark out a single line without a bullet flying or two cars crashing into one another.  It becomes numbing at times.

     And that’s a shame since there is no doubt this colorful band of heroes has a larger than life story to tell, making the prospects of a no holds barred documentary, that isn’t afraid to point fingers, the best medium for sifting through these events and presenting them without the well intentioned razzle dazzle of the “Transformers” director.  The group, who goes by nicknames such as Rone, Tanto, Boon, Tig, and Oz, are joined by Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL who like many former military Special Ops guys takes a job as a private security officer in the same theater he served in many times before, protecting dignitaries or providing security for U.S. Outposts like the one depicted here.  Rounding out the cast with Krasinski is James Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, and Max Martini, who make up the six man security detail that would risk their lives in a harrowing act of bravery.  Bay and his screenwriter, Chuck Hogan (“The Town”), adapted the story from Mitchell Zuckoff’s book of the same name which allowed for the first time since the incident to hear what occurred directly from the six men who defended both the Diplomatic Outpost and the CIA Annex against wave after wave of heavily armed radical Islamic terrorists.  And perhaps that is where the film’s primary weakness comes from and why Bay may have been attracted to the project in the first place.  It’s all guns and ammo, but devoid of the juicy details as to why the State Department failed to ensure the safety of the people stationed there even when they knew their situation was critical weeks in advance.

     In a scenario that many have likened to the Alamo, the Outpost, where the U.S. Ambassador resides, is overrun while the Annex Security Team is held back from responding just a mile down the road where the CIA compound was located.  The CIA Station Chief, who ultimately supervises the group, orders the men to stand down, ignoring the cries for help over the radio from the limited security detail assigned to Ambassador Stevens.  When they eventually do respond, the Outpost has nearly burnt down and is occupied by dozens of armed gunman.  They are able to get some members of the staff, but Stevens remains unaccounted for and is presumed dead in the blaze.  When they return to the Annex, the assumption is the terrorists will be making their way there soon, forcing the security team to set up firing positions on the roof tops of various buildings throughout the compound in order to thwart the impending attack.

     As the attacks ensue, Bay employs many of his signature visuals that ensure the film is unmistakably his own.  From the use of bright yellow and blue lighting and color correction to the camera following the trajectory of a mortar round as it falls into one of the buildings in the exact same way he followed a bomb dropped by a Japanese plane on to a ship in “Pearl Harbor”, and the constantly moving camera shots edited so as not to allow anything to remain on screen for more than one or two seconds, Bay’s style pushes a frenetic pace that never once lets up during its 144 minute running time.  In essence, he has created one nearly continuous action sequence that excels in its attention to the details of warfare and tactics, but is woefully short on substance as we barely know the characters and their motivations.  

     Every once in while, Bay will hastily interject a quick scene that shows Jack’s interaction with his wife at home.  One such scene includes the wife losing it in a McDonalds drive thru as their three screaming kids yell their orders in the background with Jack listening in by phone, reminding me of the obligatory family barbecue sequence in “Act of Valor” that served as a minor intermission to the next action set piece.  As quickly as the scene goes by, giving a glimpse into what Jack left by taking the assignment, Bay shifts gears into another action scene, leaving the emotional side of the characters to the audience’s imagination.  This goes double for the enemy, who are depicted as faceless goons throughout that only stop attacking in order to pray.  Is it a wonder why so many Americans have the fear of Muslims we see in the news today?  In fact, the characters here are so under drawn , I would challenge anyone who thinks this is a good film to ask their buddies for the names of the lead characters.  I’ll bet they can’t name one.  GRADE: C-