“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” Movie Review

Michael Bay has had a specific way of telling true stories. His methods of doing so are, for the most part, hugely unpopular. Take Pearl Harbor (2001) as a prime example, as a film that took the story of Japan’s ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and morphed it into a popcorn romance so cheesy that Nicholas Sparks would call it lame. And then there’s Pain and Gain (2013), an okay movie that conveyed a real-life murder with a heavy comedic edge. So you can imagine the worry that I and others had when we first heard that Bay would be directing a film about the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Well this is another sad attempt, I had thought to myself. But the time has come, the movie is out, and I am pleasantly surprised. With 13 Hours, it seems that Michael Bay has finally found a balance between the adrenaline rush of a thrilling action movie and the quieter moments of a grounded reality.

When explained in simplest terms, the plot of this movie sounds like your average, cheesy 90’s action flick. A group of terrorists attack a U.S. diplomatic base in Benghazi, Libya. Six members of an American security team take up arms and fight to defend the compound. Each of these men is a veteran of a military branch, whether a part of the Navy SEALS, the Marines, or Special Forces. The films follows the actions of these men in their intense fight: Tyrone S. Woods (James Badge Dale), Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski), Mark Geist (Max Martini), John Tiegan (Dominic Fumusa), Kris Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), and Boon (David Denman).

What makes this film one of Michael Bay’s best is how well his bombastic directing style is subdued. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of the infamous Michael-Bay-aesthetics: Dutch angle and low angle shots, slow motion, highly saturated colors, etc. But unlike something like the Transformers franchise, it doesn’t detract from the brutal, realistic nature of the event taking place. For the most part, at least. There are moments here and there that resemble a corny action movie. While writer Chuck Hogan did a pretty decent job in terms of dialogue, there are few weak one-liners sprinkled throughout that disrupts the tone and occasionally took me out of the movie.

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The acting is strong and consistent from beginning to end. I can’t think of a single performance that was downright awful. Though there were definitely strong and weak spots when it comes to actual character development. We get the typical backstories that come with almost every war film- they have families back home, wives, girlfriends, children, newborns- but it doesn’t really go any deeper than that. The soldiers once in a while discuss what would happen to their families if they were to perish and contemplate why they were in Libya in the first place. In truth, the soldiers didn’t entirely understand the political  atmosphere of the environment. By focusing on their point of view, we know only as much as they know. Bay made the clever choice of emphasizing the soldier’s actions and accomplishments rather than just the politics of their foreign environment.

One aspect of the film that I really loved is the portrayal of the Middle Eastern people who were allies to the United States. With a modern war film like this (and considering intense waves of Islamaphobia present in the U.S.) it would be easy to paint everything in black and white, with the Americans as the good guys, and the Libyans as the bad guys. Thankfully, 13 Hours doesn’t go this route. It shows how despite there being extremist regimes, there were Middle Eastern people who condemned their actions and chose to fight with the American soldiers rather than against them. It’s just a refreshing image that I loved.

I’ve mentioned before that this film may be Michael Bay’s best, but does that mean it’s a great movie? No, but it’s definitely a good effort. Does it succeed in staying true to the actual event? That I can’t answer that for certain. But for the film as a whole, it has enough character, emotion, and thrilling action to keep your attention from start to finish. Once in a while the narrative stumbles under the weight of Bay’s typical action tropes, most notably from what I call the “America-F*&^-Yeah!” moments involving slow shots of a tattered American flag with sad music in the background. But that doesn’t entirely detract from what is, surprisingly, an enjoyable film-going experience. Although I’m not a fan of Michael Bay, I would be lying if I said that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi wasn’t a enjoyable ride from beginning to end.

Cosmic Grade: 3.6/5 stars

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