Who would have thunk it? Nobody who saw Transformers 4, I assume, but it finally happened. Michael Bay, the explosion-hungry boob-lover whom everyone has berated for loving merchandise more than filmmaking, has made a movie that’s not only sort of good (depending on what you compare it to) but intentionally so, implying that he too has an artist deep down and isn’t all about the box office dough. It is, as others have noted, an anomaly.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi isn’t necessarily a great movie. Its heart, however, is apparently in a good place. Its subject matter is the attack of Islamic terrorists on an American outpost in Benghazi on the 2012 anniversary of 9/11, shortly after the death of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Like any good film, this one opens with semi-censored stock footage of what appears to be Gaddafi’s execution. Bring the kids.
The movie follows a team of U.S. soldiers, and a few archetypical government jerks and none too war-experienced bit players. The cast consists of John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, David Denman (reuniting with Krasinski since The Office), Matt Letscher, Alexia Barlier and other relatively unknown actors, mostly in the roles of real people involved with the mostly real events. Its source material is a book about the attacks by Mitchell Zuckoff, which is likely to be even more true to the facts.
Many of these characters seemed derivative and interchangeable to me when I watched the film, and there were clichés a plenty when it came to them talking about their families and staring somberly at Polaroid photos of said families. And yet, there was something about the way the dialogue and the banter was written, coupled with some genuinely good acting that made some of it feel authentic. None of the actors, sans maybe Krasinski, are especially huge names, so you get the idea that they were selected based on talent (plus their resemblance with the real-life SEALs that they portray) as opposed to star power.
Early in the film, Bay relies too heavily on tight shots, fast editing, shaky camera, tilted camera, and dramatic frog perspective in scenes where not much is actually happening. Cutting briskly between tight shots can make these scenes disorienting, as it is often hard to tell when we’re cutting between two things happening in the same location and when we’re cutting between two things happening in different locations altogether.
This type of cinematography and editing works a hundred times better during the action scenes, where the disorientation actually makes you feel closer to the action at hand, but the image still shakes a bit too much at times. The action scenes can be repetitive too, but this is usually made up for by the realistically gruesome war violence and the creativity of certain deaths. I’m glad there weren’t more people in the theater because I burst out laughing when that one terrorist is shot in the head while loading his RPG, promptly fires it at the ground and basically blows up his own corpse. The looks I would have gotten.
13 Hours does have many of the classic Michael Bay hallmarks as well, and yet, it’s somehow delivered so much better here than in most of his movies. There is a blatant comic relief character, yet he isn’t just an exaggerated stereotype like Bay’s comic reliefs normally are, and his clumsiness can be explained by the fact that he is obviously out of his element. There is a silly pop culture reference in the form of a character dancing to a popular song, but even that scene has a nice extra touch to it since the song he’s dancing to hasn’t been popular since the year that this movie’s taking place, adding to the feeling that we’re truly in 2012 as we watch. And yes, there is a scene that, much like Transformers 2, relies on two animals humping for comedic effect. The difference? It’s a viral video that the main characters themselves are laughing at.
Now as for Michael Bay tropes that actually are as insufferable as usual in this film, we still get the over-the-top slow-motion shots of characters screaming and the in-your-face “America fuck yeah” attitude. It doesn’t help that the main characters often have a hard time telling allied muslim forces apart from their enemies (the bad guys have ISIS flags, guys), which creates some unfortunate implications of racism. “They’re all bad guys until they’re not”, one soldier says. Or as one might say about Bay movies: “they’re all the same color”.
But, yet again there’s a “but”: the movie does take a moment to show a different side of the war towards the end, as muslim women and children are shown mourning their fallen soldiers, later posing for photos in which they announce to the western world that they are not with ISIS. And though indeed cheesy, the American patriotism feels so genuine and “sweet” in its own right. You can tell that Michael Bay cared about paying tribute to those involved in these events, from the way it’s all written, crafted and performed. I think that deserves some recognition: the fact that Michael Bay has made a film that wasn’t solely about making money. If it was, it would be way goofier, have way more big stars, and a way larger toyline. Probably a love triangle too.
I think that if Michael Bay spends less time in the world of sci-fi and spends more time on making inspirational movies/videos for the U.S. military, having evidently improved his war movie skills since the moronic Pearl Harbor, he might be a pretty okay filmmaker. This is easily the best movie he has made since The Rock. It has a lot of corny/clichéd things in it still and may not be another Black Hawk Down, but as it avoids the right tropes and is often well-made, the end result a surprisingly heartfelt love letter to American soldiers, alive and dead. I can feasibly recommend this movie to people outside of Michael Bay’s usual fanbase, but people belonging to that group will definitely join you at the screening regardless.
My brother and I had that experience (he took me to see this as a birthday treat) in the form of a trio of young lads two rows behind us, who failed to abide by the theater’s very clear “no phones” rule, constantly laughed at nothing in particular, and also seemed impatient with the film for its lack of CGI creatures fighting each other. They’ll be pleased to hear about the upcoming Ninja Turtles sequel that Bay’s producing. Maybe we haven’t learned that much of a lesson from 13 Hours after all.
I’m giving 13 Hours a 3/5. I might be judging it too much based on how entertained I personally was by it rather than its historical accuracy, but I’ll settle with my rating for now and see what manner of discussion erupts in the comment section. Won’t be political in the slightest, I bet.