Movie Review: ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’

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Michael Bay’s career has always been working up to this point, hasn’t it? Since his debut with Bad Boys (1995), Bay’s films have been mired in two obsessions: a near psychopathic contempt for Authority Figures and an ironic idolization of the American military. It’s not enough for his chisel-jawed leads (give Shia LaBeouf a few more years…) to act out preposterous flights of hyper-masculine fancy; there must always be a flustered police chief/government official and an oorah-ing squadron of Marines in the background of the finale. Occasionally these contradictory values result in truly engaging cinema: the justifiably disgruntled Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) who holds the city of San Francisco hostage with chemical weapons in The Rock (1996) remains the most singularly compelling character in Bay’s entire filmography. But most of the time we’re left with migraine-enduing patriotic chest-thumping: the miscalculated melodrama of Pearl Harbor (2001); the impotent government officials in Armageddon (1998); the infallible posturing of the US military in the Transformers “saga.”

Now we’ve come to 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a film which by its very nature allows Bay to canonize his precious soldiery and blaspheme the very government they represent. 13 Hours isn’t so much a recreation of the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack as it is a paean trumpeting the superiority of the American serviceman. In doing so, he creates a Tea Party polemic; a vivid realization of every ethnic and racial stereotype fostered against Middle Easterners filtered through a lens of American Exceptionalism. In trying to make his Black Hawk Down, Michael Bay has inadvertently made his own The Green Berets—as envisioned by Donald Trump.

Never before have his protagonists been as scruffy-faced, monosyllabically-named (“Rone,” “Jack,” “Oz,” “Tig,” “Boon”), and interchangeable. Through the majority of the film I couldn’t tell any of the soldiers apart from each other, the sole exception being John Krasinski (“Jack”) who somehow managed to maintain a babyface beneath his rugged beard. That’s not a slam against Krasinski, per se: given the meager material he’s given to work with he manages to deliver the one emotionally impacting performance in the whole film.

All this I could suffer if 13 Hours demonstrated even a modicum of technical acumen. I have always been willing to overlook politics I find personally repugnant—from the Stalinist hymns of the Soviet montage theorists to the quasi-fascism of John Milius—if the films themselves were artistically triumphant. Innocent civilians may have never been gunned down en masse by czarist soldiers on the Odessa Steps during the 1905 Potemkin Mutiny, but until the day I die I will praise the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) as one of the finest in the history of the cinema.

But 13 Hours demonstrates a new low in Bay’s ability to command cinematic grammar. Despite being a military movie focusing on a number of urban battles, Bay stubbornly captures the vast majority of the chaotic fighting in medium, medium-close, and close-up shots which obfuscate and clutter the action. The editing is so fast and slapdash that it makes one long for the Jarmusch-ian languidness of Armageddon. In his eagerness to express the kineticism of warfare, Bay creates a film totally disconnected from all concepts of spatial and temporal orientation.

Consider one pivotal sequence about halfway through the film. The heroic CIA security contractors disobey a direct (and entirely fictional) stand-down order to travel from their base to the beleaguered American diplomatic compound barely a mile away. Their job is simple: drive to the compound, retrieve the ambassador and his staff, and drive back to the base. But the entire sequence—which must have lasted 20-30 minutes—is a disjointed miasma of micro-second length shots, screaming and explosions. At no point could I distinguish where any of the characters were in relation to the CIA base, the diplomatic compound, or each other. All I knew was that at any given moment American troops were either driving around the streets of Libya, shooting at hordes of faceless Arabs, or gawking at civilian bystanders—frequently all three at the same time.

The only battle sequences that work take place in the third act where the American soldiers, having returned to the CIA base with the compound survivors, barricade themselves and repel wave after wave of enemy combatants. These scenes marginally succeed because they force Bay to reduce his camera acrobatics and focus on firefights between two clearly delineated lines of fire. But even then Bay does his damnedest to confuse things with his kitchen blender style of editing. And did anyone else catch the multiple split-second first-person perspective shots mimicking first-person shooter video games? Even for Michael Bay that seemed pretty on-the-nose.

2/10

Nathanael Hood is a 27 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He graduated from New York University - Tisch with a degree in Film Studies. He is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and his personal film blog http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/. You can contact him via email at nathanael@theyoungfolks.com. Follow him on Twitter: @natehood257 and Tumblr: filmsfoodandfandom.tumblr.com
  • Eric Christen

    If one wants to see the emasculated face of the modern Democrat Party, this author fits the bill perfectly. His “fictional” account of what the movie gets wrong is what happens when facts and research-including interviews of survivors-aren’t allowed to get in the way of pre-conceived notions.

    • Nathanael Hood

      Wow. I’m legitimately impressed. This article barely goes up and already there’s a troll comment. Well done, sir.

      • Eric Christen

        Better believe you’re impressed.

        • Nathanael Hood

          Uh…that’s what I said? I’m confused.

          • Frasto

            That was my impression too. You sound confused.

  • leobinus

    Editors’ notes:

    1. Marines say “Oorah,” not soldiers.

    2. You meant to type “per se,” not “per say.”

    The bit about spatial confusion was fair, but it’s possible that Bay wanted viewers to have a sense of disorientation.

    • Nathanael Hood

      Thanks for the comment! I’ll tell my editor about points 1 and 2.

      There are better ways to share a sense of disorientation than via insane quick-cutting and shaky cam. Check the nighttime bridge battle sequence in APOCALYPSE NOW to see what I mean.

      • Frasto

        I just saw the movie. It had typical action movie cuts. It was actually quite exciting. Sorry you found it insane.

        • Eric Christen

          Just saw it last night too. Place was packed. It was an amazing film. You’d have to have a political or anti-military bias to not like this flick. That explains many of the reviews who come from primarily liberal writers with no contact with this world.

          • Ex Merrill

            Dying at box office. Nice try.

          • Poster

            From Yahoo today — I don’t think this is “dying”.
            “Paramount’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” flirted with political controversy, drawing a rebuke from a CIA spokesman, will pulling off a solid $16 million opening over the three days. The $50 million production will do an estimated $19 million over the holiday. It screened at 2,389 locations. The 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya resulted in the killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Critics in the Republican Party have faulted the Obama administration for its response to the attack and for not being forthcoming about warnings it received that the compound might have been in danger.”

  • Welder69

    The stand down command is no hoax or lie. Multiple people don’t say that for no reason. Simply put our government lied to us. (Has many times before) I trust the people on the ground in the actual fight, more than I do Hilary and Obama.

  • Tiffany is hotter than Ivanka

    A political review – the lefty author doesn’t like the film’s message.

    Liberal journalists, desperate to protect Clinton, will shun any film which fails to be a hagiography of the former secretary of state

  • JoeDay1

    I guess portraying US servicemembers as decent human beings is just too jingoist and “hyper masculine” (whatever the f that is) for the jack a$$ who wrote this piece. If only they totally just made up a story about these guys slaughtering north Africans willy nilly and going back to the compound to gang rape a contractor, I guess this author would find the movie more “realistic” (i.e., twisted to fit his world view). What a load of manure this review is.

  • Ex Merrill

    Poor li’l ackshun flick flops.

  • Q22

    The film obviously offends his politics. The giveaways are the references to the Tea Party and Donald Trump – neither had anything to do with the making of the film.

  • JohnJ

    Sounds good, can’t really see what this pompous long winded person is on about. From what I heard the ‘stand down order’ was very real and now the CIA is denying it – well duhhhh.
    So I must see it.
    I look forward to the day the Jihadis march into Nat’s office and explain how films are harram, Now that would be a good review.