Michael Bay gets to celebrate his two favourite things – America and male heroes – in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. The stylish retelling of a real life attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost stars James Badge Dale and John Krasinki.
The real life terror attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound on September 11 2012 forms the basis for director Michael Bay’s celebration of testosterone-fuelled heroism, facial hair and heavy weaponry. This recognisably gung-ho shoot ‘em up retells the tale of the Battle of Benghazi from the point of view of a bunch of American security contractors who run to the aid of a stranded U.S. Ambassador after he is ambushed at his opulent residence.
Simply styled as an “us” versus “them” micro-war, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is self-consciously unapologetic in its patriotic approach, painting its heroes and villains with broad strokes. The yellow hue of the dusty “Middle East”, with its abandoned, bullet-speckled buildings and bearded men sporting deep tans, underlines a sense of otherness; an environment to be feared. Bay’s symbolic, high contrast montages offer ethereal but provocative layers to complement his metaphorical battlefield; slow-mo sequences of bullets tearing an American flag to pieces and archive news footage of 9/11 prescribing the sort of bad blood needed to raise the stakes for our all-American heroes.
If you can stomach the staging, Bay executes his own war on terror with a sweat-dripping energy that presents the heat of battle as well as the confusing paranoia of street-to-street fighting quite well. But if Bay’s conservative politics and one-dimensional characterisation grates, then the Battle of Benghazi is less likely to captivate, feeling more like a videogame played out by a trigger-happy over-caffeinated teenager.
It’s unusual, but Bay’s usually fine-tuned radar to casting male heroes is off. John Krasinski, best known for his comic role in the US version of The Office, feels somewhat out of place next to the oozing masculinity of James Badge Dale and the ensemble of muscular fodder forming the team of “secret soldiers” alluded to in the film’s title. Krasinski does a commendable job with limited material but, unlike Badge Dale, is unable to elevate his character beyond the perfunctory. Badge Dale has the right combination of military might and bad-boy spontaneity needed to capture our attention.
This is in contrast to Krasinski who is weighed down by a sentimental side-plot involving his perennially aggrieved wife who has been left to fend for herself and the kids back home. This isn’t the only example of women getting short shrift under Bay who ensures CIA undercover agent Sona Jillani (Alexia Barlier) is constantly “saved” from danger by her male protectors. Her ineptitude in hostile territory is actually representative of the director’s less-than complimentary depiction of America’s chief foreign intelligence gathering agency which, in 13 Hours, is a poorly led operation by men and women only effective in offices not foxholes.
Being a film about real life people and the death of Americans on foreign soil necessitates a level of seriousness that perhaps hampers the film’s overall appeal as an epic action-adventure. However, when, in its second half, it turns into a B-movie about the last line of defence, 13 Hours is far more entertaining. There’s an inkling of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even Assault on Precinct 13 as a band of brave warriors protect and serve. Badge Dale even gets his own Commando moment as he saddles up for war in slow motion; a bloodied, bruised, greasy brow the frame on which to hang a big gun and lots of bullets.
Commemorating the memories of those that gave their lives to protect vulnerable Americans against foreign hostility, 13 Hours is a film that will please fans of Michael Bay’s patriotic approach and sense of pace, style and cipher over substance and invention. As an action film it is, at times, a handsome and enthralling piece of cinema; but as a depiction, or critique, of foreign policy it’s hampered by a single-mindedness limiting its scope.