On the 2012 anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Islamic militants in the Libyan city of Benghazi attacked a diplomatic compound and killed US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens, after which a small group of CIA security contractors bravely defended the staff until they could be extracted. In 13 Hours – subtitled The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Michael Bay dramatises these events with ham-fisted macho sincerity.
Bay clearly reveres the US military, which isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but this film is so one-note, so uninterested in anything other than action and heroism, that it very quickly begins to feel like the central conflict is merely an excuse for lots of shots of greased-up buff men lugging guns around. Screenwriter Chuck Hogan makes no effort to deal with the political issues surrounding these events, which again is not fundamentally a negative, but if you’re going to present a one-sided view of a conflict, you need to do it in an intelligent way or you end up, as this film does, feeling uncomfortably patriotic and narrow minded. At times I longed for the comparative subtlety of something like Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which, although flawed, had things to say about the concept of heroism on the battlefield.
Neither director nor screenwriter is interested in presenting this conflict as anything other than a triumph of American heroism amidst tragedy, and that attitude starts to wear, particularly when you get shots of heavily armed US soldiers saying things like “they’re all bad until they’re good” while looking out into a crowd of faceless Libyans. Indeed, the script constantly reminds us of the fact that Benghazi is a terrifying place in which it’s impossible to tell the terrorists from the everyday civilians. After a while, that repeated mantra begins to grate, passing from believable paranoia into uncomfortable mistrust.
The first hour of the film (following a title card which tells us “This is a true story”, although the accuracy of the film has been called into question in some quarters) sets the scene, introducing our thinly sketched heroes through cheesy video calls to their families back home, before the film erupts into a series of action sequences. The setup is standard stuff, allowing us to spend a bit of time with our bearded protagonists and their hard-ass pencil-pushing CIA boss while pre-empting what is to come. When the action starts, it’s technically well handled by Bay and his second unit, but it drags on and on until tedium starts to set in.
What’s disappointing about the film, aside from its questionable script, is that the performances – particularly in the second half of the film – are actually pretty decent. Although our heroes are defined only by their glimpsed home relationships and their bonds with each other, which predate the events shown on screen, the cast works hard to inject the action scenes with believability and dramatic weight. The film comes alive in the second half because it’s clear that’s the bit Bay and Hogan want to get to, but even despite the cast’s best efforts, the film’s excessive length numbs the good stuff. The final act also features one of the stupidest lines of dialogue I’ve heard in the cinema in a long time.
Michael Bay may well have intended to make a film that simply celebrates the heroism of the US soldiers it depicts, and to an extent he has done th at, but 13 Hours is a testing experience, bereft of depth or intelligence. “I feel like I’m in a f**king horror movie”, says one of our heroes. In a sense, he’s right.