Great action sequences can’t make up for a willfully stupid look at war and terror
The six super troopers at the center of “13 Hours,” a retelling of the 2012 terror attack on two American bases in Benghazi, Libya, are better than everyone else around them — and they don’t let you forget it. Cocky derision — in both senses of that first word — courses through the bulging veins of these identical towers of bearded brawn.
Most are outfitted with a monosyllabic grunt of a name like Jack (John Krasinski) or Rone (James Badge Dale) or Boon (David Denman), as well as biceps thicker than their heads — though their arms are never too heavy for them to thumb their nose at authority every chance they get. They seem like clones stamped all from the same super-soldier factory — or from a run-of-the-mill Michael Bay movie.
Bay means to honor (in his typically over-the-top butch way) the men who defended their fellow U.S. citizens from a two-pronged assault on an American consulate and a secret CIA outpost by violent militias. (These other men in this sextet are played by Pablo Schreiber, Dominic Fumusa, and Max Martini.) But Bay only does so by flattening all six of his heroes into a single type of smug jerk, while dismissing everyone else as four-eyed dorks, soft-handed weenies, unworthy adversaries, or an uppity ice princess (Alexia Barlier) in need of a lesson about what a real man is capable of.
In terms of anything that has to do with characterization, Chuck Hogan‘s script is punishingly rote. But as bombastic, shoot-‘em-up spectacle, “13 Hours” is a visceral, well-paced and often beautiful action-thriller. Handheld camerawork provides the guts and helicopter swoops the glory, while the “Transformers”-esque cacophony of metal straining against metal and Lorne Balfe’s timpani-heavy score make the sextet’s bloody defenses of their strongholds feel urgent and acute.
With Malta doubling as Benghazi, Libya looks tumbledown in some parts and Bond-level chic in others: azure swimming pools and winding seaside roads patiently await whatever mayhem may arrive next. Contrasting against those calm waters is the tenseness that engulfs the six operatives at the burning consulate when dozens of armed fighters appear at the premises, and the Americans have no idea which individuals want to help and which want them dead. After trading bullets (and the occasional launched grenade) with their enemies, the six abandon the consulate and wrest from their nebbish boss (David Costabile) the right to defend the CIA compound.
Bay includes only a couple of cartoon flourishes, as when a militia fighter is split into two by a grenade, or a door’s explosion into a handful of splinters is captured in slo-mo.
But what’s it all for? The director has insisted that his film has no political agenda, which isn’t strictly true, because no work of art can ever be free of one. There are a few meatless bones thrown to liberals who might suspect a rah-rah movie about Benghazi of supporting the right, especially in an election year: Several Libyan characters, for example, are shown to be working with Americans (i.e. the mostly-good guys).
But the soldiers’ (and hence the film’s) constant scoffing — at agency hierarchy, at government bureaucracy, and particularly at anyone who wants to engage in any kind of foreign policy or intelligence effort that isn’t shooting first and asking questions later — is what ultimately makes “13 Hours” itself worthy of scorn. That myopic stance is arguably more insulting to the memory of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died during the 2012 attack, than the endless Republican exertions to politicize his death or than any other part of this movie’s attempt to turn the circumstances of his demise into entertainment.
It’s not that Bay’s heroes don’t deserve praise. But his film also didn’t have to go out of its way to slur everyone else or their work. Rated R and taking on current events, “13 Hours” is the rare Michael Bay movie that wasn’t made with teenage boys in mind. But that doesn’t make his latest any less callously juvenile.