When I first saw that Michael Bay was directing 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, I presumed that it would be like a big screen version of Call of Duty—all bluster and bravado, saturated with arcade violence. The idea of the man who is responsible for 90 percent of the world’s supply of Megan Fox’s midriff tackling a subject as politically and emotionally charged as the 2012 Benghazi attack seemed doomed to fail. Thankfully, my presumptions were wildly off-base, as 13 Hours is a visceral piece of filmmaking. The violence is ugly, the ensemble cast is compelling, and the storytelling is gripping, keeping the audience in a state of anxiety as the 13-hour-long nightmare unfolds around them.
Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, the film tells the story of the September 11, 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound by militants in Benghazi, Libya. The film, like the book, follows six CIA contractors who are serving as security for a secret CIA outpost in Benghazi, where some 30-odd intelligence analysts and field operatives are monitoring militia activity and arms deals in the increasingly unstable post-Gaddafi Libya.
Our ostensible hero and point of entry into the film is Jack Silva, played by a hirsute, handsome, and musclebound John Krasinski (basically playing the superhero version of The Office‘s Jim Halpert). A family man with two little girls and a third on the way, Silva has taken the highly dangerous but highly lucrative assignment because he and his wife are having trouble making ends meet back home. The other members of the Annex Security Team (as they are known) are all family men, too, which seems at odds with their chosen line of work. “Why can’t I go home? Why can’t I go home and just stay there?” Silva asks at one point in the film. “Warriors aren’t trained to retire,” his brother-in-arms replies.
To try and separate the Benghazi attack from the political maelstrom surrounding it is impossible. What we know now versus what we knew then constantly creeps into the edges of the film, roiling just below its surface, only to occasionally boil over. We see scenes of government and military officials hemming and hawing over whether or not to take action while six men—not active duty military, mind you—are tasked with keeping their fellow Americans alive. When mortars rain down from the sky on our heroes, one of them remarks that the coordinates were so precise that they had to have been surveilled for weeks. It is a gauntlet laid at the feet of the Obama administration and, even though her name is never mentioned, Hillary Clinton, who was then serving as Secretary of State (and has been dragged across the coals for it ever since).
The threat of impending violence looms over the film like a precariously perched guillotine, but before it deploys with a short, sharp shock, we spend an almost luxurious amount of time getting to know our main characters. The members of the Annex Security Team—actors Krasinski, Dominic Fumusa, David Denman, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, and especially James Badge Dale—are effortlessly charming with an easygoing sense of fraternity that makes it all but impossible to root for them. Yet the buildup to the 13 hours of horror is not without its own dangers, as we get a sense of exactly how perilous Libya can be. It makes it that much more stomach-churning when the assault on the American diplomatic outpost and the subsequent attempt to rescue the Ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) finally commence.
With the glut of brainless Transformers films that Bay has pumped out almost biannually since 2007, it is easy to forget that he is a filmmaker with a singular eye for action. In 13 Hours, Bay is operating at the height of his powers, delivering some of his best work in a long time. (To be fair, I did quite enjoy Pain & Gain, although I seem to be in the minority on that one.) The fireworks of rocket-propelled grenades and the steady rat-a-tat-tat of assault rifle fire are part and parcel of Bay’s filmmaking arsenal, but here they are devoid of joy. Instead they are loaded with a sense of dread, anchored with the grim knowledge that pitched battles like these actually took place and left people dead. Bearing that in mind, one might be forgiven for yearning for the halcyon days of giant robots punching one another and Shia LeBeouf shrieking “No, no, no!”
There is little time to exhale in 13 Hours, with battle sequences leading directly into chase sequences leading directly into battle sequences leading directly into tensely staring down the barrel of an assault rifle at encroaching assailants through night vision goggles. In that, it is quite effective in putting the viewer in the shoes of, or at least firmly on the side of, the brave men of the Annex Security Team. It is less interested in the men on the other end of the rifle, who are depicted as militants whose sole mandate seems to be to kill Americans. “They’re all bad guys until they’re not,” Pablo Schreiber’s Kris “Tanto” Paronto remarks.
13 Hours is a film that says exactly what it is thinking, and that can lead to some questionable dialogue (especially towards the end; even more especially for Breaking Bad‘s David Costabile, who plays the cartoonishly out-of-touch CIA bureau chief). Likewise, neither the word “subtlety” nor “nuance” appear in its dictionary, preventing it from reaching the heights of recent war films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Political grandstanding aside, 13 Hours is a capable action thriller full of explosive action, charismatic performances, and outsized tension. Perhaps most importantly, it is a worthy cinematic adaptation of the very real and very scary ordeals which these secret soldiers had to endure. And that is more than enough.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos with a side order of patriotism