2016 . 2h 24m . Action, Drama, History, Thriller, War .
During an attack on a U.S. compound in Libya, a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
Cast: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini, Toby Stephens, David Costabile, Elektra Anastasi, Alexia Barlier
January 15, 2016--This just in: Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, strictly speaking, NOT the ripped-from-the-headlines true story-based political thriller its trailer suggests. What it is, however, is an often angering, always mind-numbing bit of insulting would-be patriotism that spits in the face of its audience and on the memory of the men who died during the events it depicts, as well as that of those who have to live with themselves having survived.
The plot. In Libya, after the deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed during the Battle of Sirte in October 2011, the nation as a whole devolved into pure chaos and Benghazi in particular became "one of the most dangerous places in the world." Along with Tripoli, the CIA took an outpost in Benghazi and a number of soldiers manned it under the watchful eye of a representative for "Big Brother" (David Costabile, memorable as an insectoid "fixer" in the early years of TV's Damages and as Walter White's brief apprentice on Breaking Bad). Thrust into the chaos of the situation is ex-Navy SEAL Jack Silva (John Krasinski, formerly Jim of TV's The Office), hired to work as a private consultant for the Annex Security Team, operating out of the CIA outpost.
Partnered with the likes of old friend Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), Jack is embraced with the laissez-faire greeting, "Welcome to Club Med." Most of these guys do other things when they're not playing soldier as stranger in a strange land in some far off country, and despite the chaos in the wake of Gaddafi's death, they seem fairly relaxed, just watching and being watched at all times.
In early September 2012, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher, who you may recognize as every bureaucratic douchebag from every TV show you've ever seen) came to Benghazi and insisted on staying at the U.S. Consulate during his visit. Upon inspection, the CIA-hired soldiers of Bay's film realize that security is woefully inadequate and express their concerns but they're begrudgingly assuaged by their CIA overlord. Then the unthinkable occurs. On the 9/11 anniversary in 2012, an armed mob attacks the diplomatic compound and smokes the U.S. Ambassador out, all seen (barely) from the vantage point of the CIA outpost a mile away.
Much to the CIA director's chagrin, this forces the Annex Security Team into action, despite the fact they're "not the first responders...[they're] the last resort." As day turns to night, the team is engaged in a firefight for their lives with a strong but faceless mass of armed Libyan rebels. Soon enough, the question of which of them are local friends and which are foes and how the "bad guys" knew when and where to attack begins to gnaw at some of our "heroes."
And that's quite enough of the plot. On to the myriad afflictions of Bay's film, which are legion afterall. Where to begin? I guess it all stems from the lackluster screenplay by Chuck Hogan, adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff's best-seller. An early tip-off to the film's lack of imagination (as well as possession of a memory the size of a gypsy-moth) lies in a rather awkward transition. Jack, having just arrived in Benghazi, is privy to a fellow team-member's chewing-out by the CIA director and the button on the scene is Jack's rather wry observation, "He's fun." Nice little laugh, right? But then Bay cuts to the soldiers' quarters and Hogan has another soldier enter saying "That was fun," in reference to the previous scene. Why would the writer and director have a different actor make the same point when referring to the same incident right after (not even a second, in fact) another actor had already made same said point? To show that this is a soldier unit so thoroughly on the same page that if they don't finish each others' sentences, at least they possess a hive mind? Sadly, I'm not sure even Bay or Hogan are quite so cynical or self-aware.
Another choice bit of dialogue occurs when Costabile's CIA watchdog/office drone verbally reprimands that soldier and a fellow soldier comes to his defense. Here, Costabile says something to the effect of, "This is my last post before retirement. I don't need a misunderstanding." What are the odds then, do you suppose, that not only will there be a misunderstanding (without which, I might add, there'd likely be no film), but Costabile's retirement will be much needed (to say the least). But then, Hogan's screenplay traffics in this kind of well-worn cliche as often as Bay's rapid-fire editing team cut from one shot to another (if Armageddon's reported ASL [Average Shot Length] was 2.3 seconds, which Roger Ebert once called "a velocity that arguably makes intelligent dialogue impossible", I positively shudder to contemplate this film's ASL). When a local attache is enlisted into the fold in the early-going of the firefight, one soldier wryly comments, "Well, he's gonna die." And lest we forget we're watching a war movie of sorts, late in the film, Jack mentions his ideal dessert as something he's looking forward to, as if to rub his colleagues' noses in how far away from home they are.
That home element points to another issue with Hogan's screenplay and Bay's direction, in a way. Early on, we get some scenes (both brief flashbacks and via social media video chat) in which Jack communicates with his rather fraught pregnant wife and obnoxiously cute daughters back home. Although Bay also shows one or two other soldiers passing time in the calm before the storm (if you will) by watching video of his Cute Kid Back Home (a sure-fire symbol of What They're Fighting For), it is Jack's sense of family and home life that makes him stand apart. Well, that and the fact that he gets the only actual clearly defined name of the bunch. All his partners are given nicknames like "Boon" (David Denman, who - FUN FACT - played Jim's romantic rival Roy on The Office way back when), "Tig" (Dominic Fumusa), "Oz" (Max Martini) and one given the vaguely racist moniker "Tanto" (Pablo Schreiber). Despite starring a veritable "who's-that?" cast of mildly recognizable TV talent, they're all pretty interchangeable. As a result, the closest we get to giving a damn about any of these people is through Jack, who is so resolutely himself and (occasionally) so thoroughly a man apart that when he's enlisted to play the husband of French-born American Exxon executive Sonia Jillani (Alexia Barlier), the only woman in this typical Bay sausage fest, the name she's given him for their covert meeting is "Jack" - much to her surprise and frustration.
The film's issues go beyond the simple screenplay stage, however. The production itself is also at fault. Michael Bay has made a career of crappy but slick blockbusters which has been...hit and miss, yet all of a certain type to say the least. For every goofy bit of innocuous apocalyptic fun like The Rock (1996) or Transformers (2007), or even a mildly ambitious "idea" film like The Island (2005), there's been one unholy mess of production overkill and headache-inducing stupidity after another: Armageddon (1998), three increasingly meretricious and evil Transformers sequels (Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction), and two Bad Boys movies (in 1995 and 2003). This isn't even his first stab at true-story-based multiplex fare. In 2001, Bay turned the attack on Pearl Harbor into an overblown 3-hour assault on the senses. In 2013, he made Pain & Gain, which I think might be my personal favorite (a controversial choice, I know), where he turned a true story of kidnapping, drug use, robbery and murder into a darkly comical critique of bodybuilding masterminds ala' Fargo or Oliver Stone's Savages (2012).
Unfortunately, Bay's approach to the tragic events of Benghazi is typically Bay...ian...or Bay-esque...or something? The early-going is shot in a style interspersing slick, sun-dappled photography with gritty, grainy hand-held suggesting (somewhat) his pre-blockbuster background in music videos and video documentaries. As night falls, Bay begins to mix the smooth camera movements of the early-going with a dash-and-dodge digital sheen which seems to be cheap(er) video (to my eyes, the aesthetic, when it slowed down enough to be ascertained, resembled the rushed re-shoot finale of Gangster Squad). We get a lot of bloodshed and, eventually, gore, some grisly deaths and assaults, a lot of loud, bright gun-fire dimly-filmed, and even a big, swooping POV of a Rocket-Propelled-Grenade spiraling through the air and landing in the ground (after which, Bay cuts to the same Grenade hitting in slow motion as one of our soldiers leaps for his life), which might as well be a straight-up trope at this point considering the similar spiraling tracking shot which followed a missile down into an air craft carrier in Pearl Harbor.
So you see, it's all sound and fury, signifying nothing, and lacking a single character to care about or really even understand for that matter, despite a pounding, percussive musical score beating us about the head, it's all rendered with roughly the immediacy and urgency of a trip to the corner grocery store. The chaos of the events is clearly meant to evoke something like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001), which even gets an indirect name-check in the later goings-on, but that film made order out of chaos. This feels more like chaos filmed chaotically.
My biggest problem is the way the situation is treated entirely from the account of the men on the security team. The Libyans attacking the Consulate and then the CIA compound and engaging with the team are painted with the same brush as a faceless dark-skinned mob lacking much in context or comprehension on Bay's part. I wondered, at times, if his sole directions to actors and extras were "Brown people, yell and look menacing! White people, look and act like members of a muscle-bound frat-house!" The biggest tip-off to what's wrong with this movie, however, was in one audience member's reaction. From nearly the start, as if anticipating something juicy and thirst-quenching of his own blood-lust, seated in the very center of the theater (across the aisle and a few seats over from myself), he would occasionally giggle, lean forward, and rapidly, almost obsessive-compulsively and very very obnoxiously rub his hands together loudly and in rapid fashion. This behavior continued periodically throughout, and got disturbingly more virulent as more and more Libyans are killed in increasingly gruesome and violent manners. It turned my stomach and annoyed me more than just about anything Bay himself could've cooked up.
Oddly, hypocritical though it may seem, this is exactly the kind of approach and response that many critics of Bay's Pain & Gain had. Those who liked it (as I did) saw the potential for a darkly-comic crime story in the Coen Brothers vein shot in typically slick Bay style, and those who didn't saw it is an exploitative and gruesome exercise in pure style rather than any kind of social satire (a fine line the likes which Oliver Stone and Spike Lee have been straddling and provoking critics and audiences alike with for years). As I say, Bay's career is hit-and-miss.
Lest we get bogged down entirely in the sheer overwhelming mess of it all, Bay and Hogan give Jack a bit of dialogue (eventually) in which he begins to express his feelings in the following (rough, approximate) manner: "I sometimes wonder what my girls will think, that their daddy went off to fight for reasons he didn't understand in a country that meant nothing to him...I wonder why I don't just go home, why I can't." But it's too little, too late, and even if it wasn't, the conversation which follows between two other soldiers on the team undermines any scintilla of conscience or what passes for character development on Hogan's and Krasinski's parts. This is furthered by "Tanto"'s off-hand remark to a local aide that "Your country's gonna have to figure this shit out," as if Bay and Hogan are trying to say that it's okay for us to go into another country and make things worse, and then leave it to its own devices when the going gets rough.
So instead of any semblance of moral to the story, the lasting impression left by Bay's punishing, pummeling 144 minute "tribute" to the men who fought and/or died during the days' events is one of (would be) big gun, big dick rah-rah Americanism run amok. Ugh.
Note: You may have heard a lot mentioned about Benghazi in the current and on-going investigation into Hillary Clinton's knowledge of the events, which isn't so much as touched on directly in Bay's film, so the less said the better.