Rarely do films based on true stories hit theaters without hailstorms of fact-checking and cries of historical revisionism. The filmmakers and their supporters typically hit back with the argument that there was never a mandate for complete factual accuracy—that would be a documentary—and as long as the spirit of those portrayed on screen is accurately captured and viewers are not grossly misled, there’s no real harm being done. It’s just a movie.
In that sense, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is unique, because it’s not just a movie.
It’s a Michael Bay movie.
As is the trend for the last decade, the new film starring John Krasinski and James Badge Dale is a quick look back over the shoulder of history, this time back to September 11, 2012, when Islamist militia members laid siege to a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya and killed four Americans.13 Hours is the story of the GRS, or the Global Response Staff, the CIA contractors hired to guard the intelligence agency’s annex one mile from the compound. Krasinski plays Jack Silva, a former Marine who arrives in Benghazi days before the attack to join Tyrone Wood (Dale) and his team of badasses.
And the men of the GRS in 13 Hours aren’t simply badasses in the sense that anyone who volunteers to protect our country is inherently a badass. These guys are badasses from Michael Bay’s Alpha Male Signature Series Collection™. They gear up in montages and understand the irony of saying “Welcome to Benghazi” after a tense standoff. Their rides are dope (a stolen Mercerdes Benz fleet), and their many adorable children back home shout the names of their favorite brands over the phone (McDonalds!). Their massive muscles are sculpted by flipping truck tires practically in the nude, but they still make time to read passages from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth aloud, just in case the quote will become thematically relevant for another character in the third act.
But most importantly—and this is where things get murky—the gut instincts of the GRS members are always right, and they don’t need an Ivy League education to know what’s what. It’s in this regard that 13 Hours crosses the threshold between just being a Michael Bay movie and being a Michael Bay movie that has something to say, and its message is guaranteed to garner reactions from both sides of the political equation. The characters plainly state that if the ineffectual and not-at-all-swole head of the CIA annex in Benghazi (played by the guy who was Walter White’s nerdy assistant on Breaking Bad no less) had let the GRS do their job, Ambassador Chris Stevens and US Foreign Service officer Sean Smith would not have died. The sentiment comes straight from Mitchell Zuckoff’s book, the film’s source material, but Bay, whose preferred medium is “paintball on nerd” rather than “oil on canvas,” has never been good with subtlety.
The film’s penchant for taking potshots at the CIA feels, in part, like a direct response to Zero Dark Thirty. But strictly in terms of what’s on the screen, the mixture of politics and pop filmmaking is a confusing distraction from what is otherwise one of Bay’s better efforts. His action is still geographically confused, but Bay works best with chaos. There’s no shortage of that here. It’s getting from fire fight to fire fight that’s the problem, lending the film a video game-like structure that grows repetitive in the back half. In the moments that Krasinski is allowed to act, he proves that we should be seeing more of him than we currently are, and Dale makes the case that he’s more than an electric character actor.
13 Hours is a history lesson as Call of Duty DLC expansion pack. There’s a real story of American heroism somewhere in here, but it’s diluted by Bay’s worst tendencies. You can see practically see a filmmaker wanting to legitimize himself, but it’s kind of hard to take him seriously when there are bullets draped around the one character’s neck, an American flag floating in the pool, and you definitely recognize an exact copy of Pearl Harbor’s most memorable shot.