Turning the 2012 attack on an American ambassador in Libya into a bombastic Michael Bay action movie is not exactly the most respectful way of honoring those who fought and those who died there. But it sure is a whole lot better than the opportunistic conspiracy theory peddling and witch-hunt investigating right-wing voices engaged in over the past few years. At least 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi admits it doesn’t know why the attack happened, and can’t quite figure out if there’s any one person, aside from the attackers, at fault in a haze of panic, bureaucracy, secrecy, error, and confusion that prolonged the tragedy. Aside from his usual muddled blend of broad symbolism, big explosions, and dubious politics, here Bay’s committed to the experience of the 13-hour siege, staging swirling chaos and horrific violence in scenes of tense commotion and concussive firepower. Here war is both hell, and disorienting as hell.
The film drops into Benghazi a few months out from the incident, introducing the status quo. A well-armed security team (including John Krasinski and James Badge Dale) keeps watch over a secret CIA base (led by David Costabile), a dynamic Bay plays as fitting with his usual world view: macho brawn makes right, and nebbishy intellectuals should agree or get out the way. Meanwhile, the state department, represented by Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher), has its own compound, guarded by just a few men. In sweaty, tense set-up, the screenplay by Chuck Hogan (The Strain) makes it clear that the American diplomats and spies want to make good relationships with the locals, while the soldiers view them with suspicion. “You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” one growls, trying to stay alert and alive by simplifying and reducing an entire population to one suspect group.
Soon enough, the movie skips ahead to the night in question. Faceless waves of local attackers appear, first at the embassy, then later at the CIA compound. Emerging from shadows and through fields of tall grass and ominous bombed out debris, they might as well be zombie hordes. We don’t know who they are or what they want. We just know it’s an us-or-them battle for survival. But it’s not only the enemy that remains vague. Bay’s film is loaded with unambiguous value judgments of the sort his films usually feature. Soldiers are always manly good, suits are always weak, women always need to be humbled, and foreigners are always bad, or at least unknowable and scary. What passes for character work are scenes of guys joshing during downtime. A long sequence of button-pushing sentimentality that occurs before the combat begins – every American soldier gets a tearful call home to beaming wives and children – is supposed to give the largely uncharacterized and sparsely differentiated ensemble of bearded gruff dudes extra oomph of emotional firepower once the bullets and bombs start flying.
The attack, which takes up most of the film’s 144-minute run time, is sensationally staged Bay-hem in full force. In some ways it is as sensationalistic as his Transformers movies, loving the thump of weapons shooting, the impact of a detonation, the deceptive fragility of a vehicle in the crossfire, the flesh-tearing power of ordnance. He enjoys staging the action, lingering on the hardware, staring with engaged curiosity at the devices, even repeating his memorable Pearl Harbor shot following a bomb as it falls out of the sky and into American servicemen below. But because this is a real tragedy, and a recent one, he finds some welcome mournful notes, ramping up the visceral gore and smoke to play up the fear and confusion. None of the soldiers know the extent of the attack, the reasons behind it, or where the next threat is coming from. They just hunker down and follow their training, knowing significant help is too far away, and what little they can do is constantly stymied by the rapidly changing facts on the ground.
It’s a deliberate geopolitical Rorschach test, messily lining up with what you already think about this event, and about American foreign policy in general. Other than brief shots of the White House and Pentagon, the government isn’t represented, and as far as the soldiers are concerned, they just want to get home, expressing both a sense of duty and a sense of uncertainty of purpose. And aside from token good Libyans, the film mostly treats the crowds as obstacles and threats. It’s a problematic stew of half-digested ideology, but there’s not a lot to chew on – it’s too garbled on a thematic level beyond ogling its heroes determination and toughness. No, this is basically a war film all about the action, finding compelling and striking ways of framing intense combat. Bay works with cinematographer Dion Beebe (Edge of Tomorrow, Miami Vice) to create grimy digital beauty (sleek and dirt-speckled) out of firefights lighting up a dim back alley, eerie drone shots floating helplessly above the violence, a crowd of dangerous figures creeping towards a compound viewed through night vision goggles, mortar fire streaking skyward against the sunrise.
It’s as handsomely mounted and serious a production as Bay has ever attempted, like his Pearl Harbor stripped of most of its melodrama, or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down without the cold and rigorous precision. But of course it is, after all, still a Michael Bay movie, complete with his usual stylistic indulgences: glamorous slow-motion violence, canted low-angle shots of people getting out of cars, and conspicuous product placement. (Worst is McDonald’s, for its prominent placement in a scene where a soldier calls home and talks to his family while they’re in a drive-thru.) 13 Hours is impactful and technically accomplished, an intense amalgamation of weary jingoism and tense survivalist impulses. For every dazzling, heart-stopping round of fire, and every chest-whomping bass thump Foley effect, there’s a queasy mixture of genre pleasure, bloody red meat, and mournful uncertainty. It is blunt action filmmaking eager to conflate Hollywood craftsmanship and U.S. military might. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is allowing its confusing chaos of violence – and its causes and effects – to stand as a messy, imperfect, ambiguous, and exhausted response to endless, and senseless, bloodshed, telling you to make of it what you will.