13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi might be Michael Bay’s best film, as his apolitical take on that night’s events serves as an excellent template for his action filmmaking skills.
The film follows the events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, 2012. “Benghazi” has become a right-wing dirty word for the supposed conspiracy and incompetence of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama, but as Bay tells it in his film, this was just a crazy situation in a place that we probably shouldn’t have been in the first place. And this is pretty much the truth. The conspiracy around Benghazi has never turned up a shred of truth and all that is left is this story of ex and active military personnel working together to protect the Benghazi “embassy” and “secret” CIA annex. That story serves as an insane experience for Bay to throw us in the middle of, and he does so by crafting an action film that sets a high bar for the year to come.
What holds Bay back often as a filmmaker, for me at least, is his not so great sense of humor. 13 Hours is his most dramatic effort alongside Pearl Harbor, but he does a better job of setting up his core team and letting the viewer connect with the film’s heroes. The film doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t try and stir the rah-rah pot of American exceptionalism and just tries to put us in the moment with these soldiers. The experience these guys went through is unlike any military picture I have seen and seems to be one of the most accurate depictions of what it might be like trying to operate in these Middle East countries. You don’t know who is on your side, everyone has guns, everything might be a trap, your brain and body have to be working overtime to navigate a situation like this. It’s unimaginable the amount of stress and craziness being in these guys’ shoes would have felt like, but Bay almost gets you there.
Bay is one of the strongest action directors of the last twenty years, no matter your opinion of his films, and he does a great job of telling this crazy story with his visual language in a way that never gets too confusing. And man, could this story have gotten confusing. Any confusion in the film is deliberate due to being in the mindset of the soldiers we are watching, but visually you always have a very good feel for what is happening and where. The annex set in particular was wonderfully laid out and you totally can stay with the fighting as it changes in the space.
For his cast, Bay enlisted one of my favorites in the co-lead, James Badge Dale. Dale is one of the best “that guy” of his generation and I relish opportunities like this where he gets to take the lead. He’s charismatic and entirely believable as the leader of this security team, selling every aspect of the role and feeling realistic on top of all of that. All of the soldiers feel like real people, not puffed up super soldiers, and that goes a long way to allowing the viewers to be able to connect to them. When you get your obligatory calling home montage, you believe it. John Krasinski gets his biggest dramatic role yet, and feels like both an everyman trying to help his family and an accomplished soldier all at once. Pablo Schreiber gives the film its comedic edge, and he is entirely convincing as the sort of crazy soldier type who lives for the action. David Denham, Dominic Fumusa and Max Martini round out the team (all six are veteran TV actors) and all of them feel as authentic as the three mentioned above. Martini comes the closest to being the stereotypical super soldier type, but that’s more through the actions his character “Oz” takes, and not because of his performance. Martini plays the part as level-headed and tactical as you would hope in a film like this. A lot of other players round out a large ensemble with everyone deliver solid work from top to bottom.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi isn’t the conspiracy driving film I thought it might end up feeling like. The film is a thoughtful, respectful and expertly executed action film about the fight to protect American lives in a hostile territory. Bay respects the dead, doesn’t demonize the enemy and never tries to lionize the soldiers. He takes the viewer on these soldiers’ experience and does so with the type of filmmaking that makes you feel like you were right in the thick of it. Don’t miss this if you’re a military or action film fan, this is one of the good ones.