“13 Hours” has a two-and-a-half hour runtime but feels like a 24 hour ordeal. It’s a harrowing and deliberate film from a director better known for constructing (and destroying) robots than for fleshing out blue-blooded humans. But Michael Bay’s latest film, about the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is surprisingly thrilling and thoughtful.
An aura of uneasy suspense is established at the outset of the film, from the moment ex-Navy SEALs Jack Silva (John Krasinski) and Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) meet up at the Benghazi airport. The streets are bustling with everyday activity, until the weapons emerge; within minutes, Jack and Rone get caught in a hold-up with a local militia. Guns are drawn, threats are exchanged, and Rone convinces the scowling leader that Uncle Sam has a couple of drones flying overhead, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Guns are lowered. Rone backs the jeep out and returns to the main road.
“Welcome to Benghazi,” Rone says wryly.
Jack has been summoned to Benghazi to join a security team of U.S. military vets, hired by the CIA to protect the American diplomats operating out of the region. The tension between the diplomats and the security team is established early on: Sona Jillani (Alexia Barlier) bristles when the presence of her “babysitters” interferes with diplomatic talks, and the on-site CIA chief known only as Bob (David Costabile) is a constant thorn in their side, and can almost be viewed as one of the film’s antagonist, insofar as the others are nameless, faceless terrorists. “You’re not CIA,” he snaps at Rone. “You’re hired help. Act the part.”
The animosity among the Americans situated in Benghazi is one part of the film that feels a bit orchestrated, and the veracity of Bob’s stony refusal to give the security team free reign has been called into question. But to its credit, aside from the obligatory “This is a true story” epigraph splashed on the opening of the film, “13 Hours” treats the truth as a murky matter, save for one character’s uncontestable, mid-film summation: “What a shitshow.”
Unfortunately, the dialogue is nowhere near as nuanced as the overall message, with clunky references to “the bad guys” and “the good guys” bogging down otherwise visceral moments of horror. But when the shooting starts, we’re drawn right into the action, as the jittery camerawork, the hazy night-vision lighting and the Hans Zimmer-inspired score ratchets up stress levels and heart rates.
“13 Hours” focuses on heroics rather than politics. Save for a couple lines of meaningless prattle from a boardroom full of suits, the scenes from “back home” are few and far between. Instead, the film wisely fixates on the bravery of a group of men in a no-win situation, fighting to defend American lives in the face of certain death. As the assault on the diplomatic compound begins, Jack, Rone and their impeccably trained compatriots hide their shellshock well, and their steely-eyed exteriors prove that they’ve been involved in similar circumstances too many times to count. But their haunted expressions betray their all-too-human core.
The camaraderie between the CIA contractors, many of whom served together, all of whom speak the common language of brothers at war, is effortless. At times their rapport feels too effortless, their personalities too similar, to the extent that we can barely differentiate between each of the buff, tanned, rugged ex-soldiers. (So, that one is an ex-SEAL and that one is just an ex-Marine? That one has slightly darker facial hair? That’s the guy from “The Office”?) And, sure, Michael Bay gives audiences a couple glimpses of family photos to tug at the heartstrings. But the film’s most quietly impactful scene comes before the explosive action, before the bursts of heroism. As the camera pans through a montage of each member of the security team Skyping home with family and loved ones, the scene feels peaceful, ordinary, and all the more touching because of its simple universality.
Even the politically-slanted scenes serve to humanize our heroes rather than cast the lens of blame on any one person or administration. In between waves of attack, Rone and Jack share a moment of vulnerability on the roof of the compound, as Jack tearfully wonders about his daughter telling her friends of her father who died in a country far from home, fighting in a war he didn’t believe in.
In one of the film’s final scenes, the camera wordlessly hones in on images of wailing women throwing themselves at the ground by the fallen bodies of the men who had led the brutal attack on the American compound and CIA base. Nearby, a tattered and bullet-ridden American flag floats listlessly in the dirty water of the slain U.S. ambassador’s once sparkling pool. Are we meant to pity these women while apotheosizing the men who killed them? It’s not entirely clear. And perhaps it never will be.