Restraint is not a word one often associates with the works of Michael Bay, even if the violent reaction his films can elicit makes you wonder if protective orders have been issued to some viewers. With one exception, Bay’s last decade has been spent directing increasingly cacophonous toy commercials, so a return to purely human action-drama with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi makes for a notable, welcome downshift. It’s Bay’s most stylistically conservative film in ages, but instead of revealing the technical method behind his mayhem, 13 Hours marches the director into familiar territory only half-cocked.
This being the first modern military story Bay has told, the potential for 13 Hours to be something great and/or terrible seemed likely. Given his tendency to glorify America’s armed forces even from a distance, it’s hardly surprising that 13 Hours keeps men in fatigues looking spotless and shiny as they make bloody engagements appear stimulatingly awesome. Snipers line up reticles over targets with steely efficiency, paramilitary contractors play quick draw when outnumbered 4 to 1, and American vehicular ingenuity puts a brutal end to a mile-long car chase. And that’s all before the real clock starts on 13 Hours.
The title is a reference to (or flat explanation of, if you include the ridiculous subtitle) an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, one perpetrated by Libyan militia forces in 2012. An opening info dump over screen static lays out the gist of America’s uncertain presence in Libya following the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The old regime’s weaponry is falling into the hands of gangs and fundamentalists uninterested in a democratic state, putting American officials and unofficial CIA agents in the tough position of disarming a city that has more on-the-ground firepower than they do.
Context for Libya’s political climate before or after the September 11th attack doesn’t hold much interest to Bay, or screenwriter Chuck Hogan. What they’re really here to do is recreate the half-day worth of night that CIA contractors spent defending their annex from a superior force. The majority of 13 Hours’ exhausting 144-minute runtime is spent watching a squad of ex-special operatives blow away enemy combatants, with on-the-move early action scenes giving way to an hour-plus slog to hold a fort. It’s Assault on Precinct 13 by way of Zero Dark Thirty, but by the guy who once had a sentient yellow Chevy pee on John Turturro.
“You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” James Badge Dale’s character says early in the film, which encapsulates both 13 Hours’ most compelling element, and one of its outstanding flaws. Straddled with a timeline of real events to (roughly) stick to, and actual military ROE to consider, Bay spends as much time figuring out whom the actual threat is as he does setting off explosives around them. Other Bay heroes get to gleefully annihilate robots and drug dealers by the score, assured in their righteousness, but the fog of war makes the confused lead up to each confrontation often far more thrilling than the inevitable fireworks.
When the action does kick into gear, though, it becomes just as hard to tell any of the good guys from one another. Many of the servicemen all blur together in a faceless crowd of facial hair and muscle, their defining characteristics (one reads Joseph Campbell; one has glasses) too minor to matter on the battlefield. Our rooting interest in these soldiers for their defense of endangered Americans and cooperating Libyans should be enough, yet Bay can’t help but to sentimentalize his alpha warriors; awkward flashbacks and home phone calls keep Bay’s portrait of America looking like a 21st century Rockwell, all tree houses and class pets, McDonalds and Disney World. (Meanwhile, heavy product placement for both Coca-Cola and Mercedes Benz is glaring, and factually inaccurate in the latter case).
Seeing as even the word “Benghazi” will possibly conjure memories of heated family discussions over the holidays, Bay makes his first line of dialogue in 13 Hours a rather incisive one (“It’s loaded.”). The film is apolitical in the same way that any business deal is never supposed to be personal. While 13 Hours’ celebration of American courage, military hardware, and strength in the face of Islamic terror and government interference (David Costabile, playing the requisite CIA weasel running point) won’t be able to attract a target audience currently occupied with high-caliber ordnance in Oregon, the film will nonetheless be a strategic box office hit. Bay maintains his appealing eye for emotionally intelligible chaos, even as the nighttime setting bleeds his digital imagery of much of its gritty detail.
It’s a shame, then, that even as Bay tones down his awful sense of humor, misogyny (the sole female character is merely incompetent, not grossly sexualized. What a win!), and explosive self-indulgence out of respect for his heroes, 13 Hours can’t hang with the director’s best. Pain & Gain, Bay’s 2013 crime farce, saw him using the full might of his destructive powers for good, every music video angle and oversaturated frame contributing to a gleefully nasty look at American dreams turned delusions. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi is Bay’s most focused and earnest effort to date, but maybe it’s too late for him to bother with trying to be respectable.
A Michael Bay with restrictions is not a Michael Bay that’s particularly worth watching, as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi illustrates.