Director: Michael Bay
Cast: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Pablo Schreiber, Toby Stephens, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, David Denman, David Costabile, David Giuntoli, Demetrius Gross, Alexia Barlier
Runtime: 2 hrs 25 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: UIP
Official Website: http://www.thirteenhoursmovie.com
Opening Day: 18 February 2016
Synopsis: From director Michael Bay, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”is the gripping true story of six elite ex-military operators assigned to protect the CIA who fought back against overwhelming odds when terrorists attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound on September 11, 2012. When everything went wrong, six men had the courage to do what was right. Based on the nonfiction book “13 Hours” by New York Times bestselling author Mitchell Zuckoff and Members of the Annex Security Team.
In between making the next (and supposedly the last) ‘Transformers’ movie, Michael Bay has decided to make a film about the most complex and controversial episode of American military history in recent years. For the uninitiated, ’13 Hours’ – based upon the 2014 book of the same name by Mitchell Zuckoff – tells of the 2012 assaults on an unsecured U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby Central Intelligence Agency base in Libya in which four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, died. Unsurprisingly, that attack has become highly politicized by Republicans as a failure of American foreign policy under the Obama administration, and remains a sore spot for then-Secretary of State and current Democratic-hopeful elect Hillary Clinton, with a Congressional investigation now underway. Given the sensitivity, it may seem entirely opportunistic of Bay to make a film about the incident, but Bay isn’t concerned at all about the politics.
Oh no, Bay’s intentions are much more straightforward – that is, to honour the people who were literally in the line of fire that fateful night of the anniversary of 9/11. In particular, his focus is on the half dozen private security operators, members of the CIA's sub-contracted Global Response Staff (GRS) tasked to protect CIA staffers at its covert Libyan base, who swung into action against the orders of its base chief Bob (David Costabile) to attempt to rescue the ambassador and his ill-equipped security detail under siege at the compound. These were the same men who will go on to defend the base later on against a series of increasingly violent attacks by Islamic militants, before being bailed out by the Libyan army while waiting in vain for the U.S. air support that never came. Indeed, if there is any hint of politics in Bay’s depiction, it is of the weak-willed and plain clueless CIA and Pentagon officials whose inaction most certainly placed those on the ground at greater unnecessary risk.
Simplistic as such a jingoistic tale of bravery may sound, it is in fact surprisingly effective. Bay has never been shy about his love for the American flag, and in ’13 Hours’, his overt patriotism finds its voice in the celebration of these unsung heroes – ‘shadow warriors’ as they call themselves – who were greeted with professional contempt by their base commander but rose to the occasion when the time came to find the courage to do what was right. Working off a spare, minimalist screenplay by novelist Chuck Hogan, Bay uses the arrival of John Krasinski’s Jack Silva to introduce the other members of the detail – including their leader Tyrone ‘Rone’ Woods (James Badge Dale) and the wisecracking Kris ‘Tanto’ Paronto (Pablo Schreiber) – and establish their daily routine before kicking things into high gear. The setup is well worth the wait, in particular in acquainting us to the tension within the American ranks between the CIA types and these quasi-governmental employees.
Between mission and motivation, Bay chooses the former, so it isn’t quite surprising that we don’t get to know these men as much as we’d like to. The little amount of time Bay squeezes out for character development is largely spent on superficial and similar individual attributes – whether an occasional flashback, or a Skype call home, or a longing glance at a family photo – and besides Jack and Tyrone, the rest of their teammates are pretty much indistinct from one another. For a different reason altogether, that same sense of ambiguity applies to their attackers. Not just for the fact that their nature and origin remain contested, Bay underscores just how difficult it was to distinguish Libyan ally from enemy given the various warring tribal factions in control of different parts of post- Gadhafi Libya – and as the former Army ranger Tanto puts it, “They’re all bad guys till they’re not.”
For slightly less than two hours, Bay is completely in his wheelhouse portraying the intense firefight between the titular soldiers and their aggressors. As ever, Bay’s penchant for action is riveting and pulse-pounding, and there are about four to five big set-pieces that showcase what Bay is seriously good at. From the storming of the compound to a relentless gunfight in the streets outside to a vehicular chase through the dimly lit roads to the ‘Alamo-like’ siege of the CIA base, Bay thrusts his audience right into the heart of the action, capturing with impressive detail the dizzying chaos as well as the psyche of these men – their fatigue, their sense of helplessness, their camaraderie and most of all, their sense of duty – as the hours wear on with little hope or sign of reprieve. His cynics will no doubt pick on his use of slo-mos, ‘kill shots’ and even a ‘missile-eye view’, but these signature Bay techniques are by and large employed judiciously here to convey the gore and carnage of war.
To be fair, ’13 Hours’ lacks the gravitas or nuance of ‘American Sniper’, but even if Bay’s affair is a much more simplistic portrayal of the grit, resourcefulness and valour of his subjects, it is nonetheless thrillingly and viscerally powerful. There is no political commentary here, and we would argue the omission is for the better – not only for the fact that it would be presumptuous of Bay to try to tint public opinion over such a contentious incident at this inauspicious timing, but also because there are obviously directors out there more dexterous at it. Instead, Bay chooses to do what he does best, and that is, to honour the heroism of the men who saved the day by placing us in their boots on the ground in the heat of battle. And for all that American rah-rah, Bay does leave us with a thought-provoking image: mothers and children wandering through the field of corpses outside the CIA compound the morning after the attack, grieving over their dead spouses.
(Thrilling and visceral, Michael Bay’s salute to the heroes of that fateful day in Benghazi is a searing real-life war movie)
Review by Gabriel Chong