Michael Bay allows himself no dramatic wiggle room by insisting that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is a true story, with no “based on” hedges or excuses.
It’s a declaration both brave and crazy for this most explosive of directors, whose last big excursion into American history, Pearl Harbor, treated reality as a mere starting point. He’s much more at home with mindless fantasies about giant robots, AKA his Transformers movie franchise.
With 13 Hours, Bay seeks to show and tell how it all went down on Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, when militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA stronghold. Four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the political fallout over security lapses and insufficient response haunts the presidential bid of Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State.
Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Town) stick close to journalist Mitchell Zuckoff’s lauded account of the attack, which lionizes six ex-military CIA security contractors who bucked protocol to save lives.
The “bad guys” on both sides are often spoken of but not personalized, apart from a foot-dragging CIA chief (David Costabile), who actually gets off rather lightly. Clinton doesn’t even rate a mention. This isn’t a movie that wants to meddle in politics or even make much of a point.
The restraint is laudable but in dramatic terms, 13 Hours is almost as vacant as most of Bay’s films. He does only a cursory job of introducing the six macho men — in particular close friends Jack and Tyrone, played by John Krasinski and James Badge Dale — who are seen as family-loving patriots who believe in doing the right thing, rules be damned.
Their personal stories get lost amid a confusing spray of bickering, bullets and blood, as the Americans try to figure out who the “friendlies” are within the volatile mobs invading their two spaces. Are they dealing with protesters, terrorists or saviours?
Our six heroes are ordered not to engage by their butt-covering CIA chief — “You’re not the first responders, you’re the last resort!” — and this frustrates them (and also viewers) for much of the film, until they finally take matters into their own hands.
13 Hours is a movie where the questions are asked first and the shooting happens later, the opposite of Bay’s usual modus operandi. Bully for him and bravo for journalism, but it doesn’t make for satisfying cinema. Maybe he can’t handle the truth.