January 18, 2016
There are two types of movies that typically don’t get me excited to go to the theater: military biopics and Michael Bay directed movies. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi combines them both into a cinematic adaptation of the book by Mitchell Zuckoff. I was unprepared for the emotional impact of this retelling of the tragic events from 2012, and the credit for that goes to director Michael Bay. Unlike other films in his cinematic catalog, “13 Hours” lacks the standard expected “Bayhem.” Instead of gratuitous violence, swinging cameras, and patriotic pandering, Bay delivers a film that is intensely gripping, touching without being sentimental, and utterly compelling. Bay has created his best movie yet and it’s likely because it’s the least Bay-like film he’s ever made.
After the 2011 revolution in Libya that resulted in the overthrow and execution of Muammar Gaddafi, the majority of US government employees were removed from the country, leaving a small secret CIA base, known as the Annex, in Benghazi. On September 12, 2012, a six-man team of ex-Special Forces soldiers hired to protect the Annex took it upon themselves to travel the one-mile distance between the base and the former US Embassy-turned US State Department Compound in an unsanctioned attempt to rescue embattled Americans diplomats from multiple unknown enemy combatants. The “secret soldiers” of the title are a Global Response Staff team, led by Tyrone “Rone” Woods (played by James Badge Dale). Each member is highly skilled, highly trained, and pushed to his absolute limit.
This film could easily have been made to pander patriotic, while displaying the usual gratuitous action-overload that Bay is known for. Minus a few cinematography choices that seemed inspired from video games, Bay cultivated a compelling story without laying blame or pointing fingers. He not only shows the audience what happens, but manages to create a sense of claustrophobia by tightly packing each scene with content, helping us experience the rising frustrations, fear, and desperation that these men underwent. For example, when Rone makes the call for his team to suit-up, he and his team are forced to hold when the CIA station chief won’t allow them to leave. Rone and his team become the only thing you see in the scene, packed together in tight personal shots which force the audience to take on the team’s irritation as they are held back by the very principles swore to protect. Bay also impressively avoids providing any subtitles. When we are shown two individuals that are intended to be leaders of the insurgents, we learn nothing about them. We don’t know why they choose to attack, as would-be insurgents give no grand explanatory speeches. We, like the G.R.S. team, are left in the dark regarding their motivation and that makes it all the more terrifying to watch as the events unfold.
The biggest surprise to me was the lack of politicians on-screen and this seemed like the wisest move possible. The 2012 Benghazi attack is still held in contention for responsibility, but by centering on the military-side, it allowed the story to focus on where it needed to be– these men and their heroic efforts to protect and serve against enormous odds.
In the telling of the 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, one side of a tragic event is presented without pomp or circumstance. This is a thing that happened and these are the men who fought to save American lives when they needed protecting. Unlike other Bay films where the body count is inconsequential, in this true story, humans lives are all that matters. The true essence of a soldier is knowing when to fight and when to hold. Rather than create a grossly violent war film, Bay manages to find the delicate balance in a sense of reality that respects both the living and the dead. Putting aside his Bayhem, Michael Bay recreated the “13 Hours” story in a way that is simultaneously mesmerizing and emotionally exhausting. When the credits are done rolling, it is clear he has done great service to those around the world that protect us every day.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5