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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Movie Review: '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'

The gripping real-life story also has the stain of Michael Bay all over it.

Review by Matt Cummings

If you watched with despair and disappointment surrounding the 2013 attack on US bases in Benghazi, Libya you weren't alone. Now 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi has arrived to shake up that bottle once more. And while our leads do a great job keeping the story moving, its director can't deliver his own message without an extreme amount of Michael Bay-ness.

Stating that it's an actual 'true story,' 13 Hours unites best buds/ex-military studs Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) and Jack Silva (John Krasinski) with Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman) and Mark 'Oz' Geist (Max Martini) as they seek to protect a a poorly-hidden CIA site in one of the world's most dangerous places. From the moment the cash-strapped Silva arrives, the entire nation seems ready for war; but as the foursome will learn, much of that hatred will be focused on them and their current mission. When the life of the US Ambassador is compromised just one mile away, the team finds themselves engaged in a war of attrition, defending their base while waves of Libyan 'freedom fighters' assault them. With the US government slow to react, the base must survive through a harrowing 13 hours if they hope to get out of Benghazi alive.

For those of us who believe our soldiers deserve the ultimate respect (and military support) for what they do, 13 Hours is sure to infuriate. It demonstrates what took over a year to uncover, courtesy of a painful series of Congressional hearings, the details of which could find themselves replayed in the upcoming presidential election. Director Michael Bay sets up the environment, places our heroes in the muck, and lets them react as the noose is tightened. That works with varying effect, demonstrating that Bay's Transformers action sensibilities can be put to good use.

But while a lot of 13 Hours works as a siege film, it still has the stain and stink of Bay all over it. A gluttony of slow-motion sequences with the American flag in display gets tiring after...say...the thirteenth time, while he also berates us with our leads walking or reacting in slow-mo to something; it's in these sequences that Bay keeps the camera rolling without giving people much to do. It's a shame really, because so much of 13 Hours gets the drama absolutely right, especially as the film leads to its tragic climax. And it's not only when our heroes begin to fall: their camaraderie makes their demise even more painful (and therefore appealing) to watch.

When that isn't happening, the film is too busy pressing the jingoism button, assaulting that line via those slow-mo sequences. That decision compromises the base nature of the film, begging an instant comparison to the superior Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. Some might not see the connection, but they're both based on the FUBAR nature of a military which leaves its men behind enemy lines. Scott made Hawk a character drama first, not an orgasm of guns, explosions, and male quips. Sadly, a lot of that appears in 13 Hours as we get closer to the end, constantly reminding you of this for well over 120 minutes.

But don't get me wrong: Bay turns up the tension, sets the stage for the meltdown, and tells a compelling story about our soldiers and the impotency of their leaders to react in time. He brings in an unlikely set of actors who actually work quite well, including the surprisingly good Krasinski. He, Badge, and Martini enjoy terrific chemistry, reminding us that sometimes Bay can actually move human drama to the right actors, as he did in Pain and Gain. Some of the best drama happens between the always exceptional Dale and the local CIA boob played by David Costabile, who's nearing retirement and can't see that the immediate threat will soon spill over into their hidden camp. When the final body count arrives, you find yourself wondering why Fate gave Costabile's Chief Bob a pass and not Badge's Woods.

The incredible story behind 13 Hours deserves to be told without all the silly rah-rah nationalism. At least Bay has the decency to show Libyan women weeping over their dead after the Americans bug out; it goes a long way to humanizing a place that needs a lot more of it. But with all that bombastic firepower, will audiences also be clamoring for giant robots instead of trying to read the movie's rather convoluted message?

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is rated R for for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language and has a runtime of 144 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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