Michael Bay makes terrible films; let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat. The thing is though, he’s technically very capable; how could he not be after decades in the business, churning out tentpole after tentpole? So the fact that half of his oeuvre is complete garbage (Bad Boys, Transformers) has to be a simple matter of apathy, because when he cares, watch out — evident by the subversive brilliance of Pain & Gain from a few years ago, and now 13 Hours, a flawed but passionate and respectable war film about that fateful night in Benghazi where Americans, including an ambassador, lost their lives.
The most remarkable thing about 13 Hours is how it remains, for the most part, apolitical. Whichever side of the politicized account of what happened at the American Embassy in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 you fall on, 13 Hours will not deliberately stoke your emotions, that is unless you choose to read further into the blanket generalizations the film makes about ineffective government bureaucracy, an olive branch to both sides who can usually find some agreement on the banality of red tape. That’s really the extent of the criticism, as Bay spends the majority of his energy detailing the lives of the GRS (Global Response Staff) security officers present, and breaking down their actions through the days leading up to and throughout the horrific attack.
Among those officers are James Badge Dale (Chase from 24‘s best season, season three), and a very unlikely John Krasinski (yes, him), who I can only imagine was chosen purposely against type for his doe-eyed optimism and overall greenness when it comes to bare-knuckles drama. 13 Hours clearly sets him up as the audience surrogate, following him into Libya, and using him to establish the pulse of the embassy, shock at the lawlessness of the surrounding land, and a “just doing my job” mentality that serves as a foil to Dale’s gung-ho demeanor. Surprisingly, this works very well, and goes a long way towards humanizing these men and stirring empathy for their unfortunate situation, one they never asked to be in in the first place, the thankless task of guarding people who never in a million years perceived an actual threat.
There is a good forty-five minutes of this before all hell breaks loose, and it’s sufficient to lend 13 Hours meaning beyond a mere superficial exercise in the use of military hardware. Once the first shots are fired the film does not let up, and it’s here where Bay’s skills as an action filmmaker are best utilized. I’m not always convinced by the film’s editing, which occasionally presents a confusing sense of space that reflects chaos by accident, through sloppy juxtapositions that show characters in different places a mere seconds apart. The war scenes have little continuity, which could be excused as being representative of the moment, but considering the confusing messes Transformers‘ action sequences turned out to be, it’s more likely that the most work Bay cares to put into his films takes place in the editing room, where a lack of coverage can only be hidden so much. Bay’s chief concern is making the audience feel every bullet, every artillery shell, and every cloud of thick, black smoke, and it pays off throughout the prolonged attack, mostly in the impeccable sound design.
The best, most state-of-the-art filmmaking cannot alone save a film, however. What good is being dropped in the middle of a war zone if you care not for the characters involved? The fact that 13 Hours has nearly 150 minutes to spread out, and pace itself during the first hour is crucial to emotionally empower the battle scenes to come, and I applaud the fact that the lives of these men weren’t taken for granted just because they happened to be American. That characters are developed for this purpose alone keeps the film from coming anywhere close to greatness, but as Bay’s films aren’t known for their narrative weight, it’s probably for the best he stayed in his wheelhouse, especially for material so politically charged and sensitive. Considering his highest grossing films, it’s remarkable enough that he was able to make something this passable from so far deep within his comfort zone.
The Verdict: Rave