'Transformers' director Michael Bay tackles Benghazi — and the result is sound and fury signifying nothing
Have no fear Hillary Clinton. Michael Bay is not guilty of using his new blast of mind-numbing noise, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, as a battle cry against your shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. He’s leaving that to Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s name is never mentioned in this telling of the siege on a diplomatic outpost that occurred under her watch as Secretary of State. Still, enough blame is implied to make 13 Hours Donald Trump’s early pick for movie of the year.
This is Bay’s cinematic celebration of the six brave American security operators on the ground on Sept. 11, 2012, when an attack by Islamic militants ended four American lives in Benghazi, Libya. Clumsily adapted by a tin-eared Chuck Hogan from Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 nonfiction bestseller, the movie effectively captures the frenzy of the ambush. That’s pretty much it for the good news. The rest is pure Bay, as when he borrows a trick from his abysmal Pearl Harbor and shoots a scene of real-life tragedy from the point of view of a bomb. The director of a trilogy of Transformers twaddle still gets more jacked up by machines than people.
And yet this time a bit of humanity peeks through the din in the form of several solid actors. John Krasinski as Jack Silva and James Badge Dale as Tyrone “Rone” Woods bring a distinct human touch to the roles of former Navy SEALs now hired for $150,000 a year by the CIA’s Global Response Staff to protect U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats in an unsecured Benghazi compound. These guys not only have to contend with liberal wussies at home, but also condescending CIA elitists (Bay hates pencil pushers). In the words of the local CIA chief (David Costabile), mysteriously named Bob: “You’re hired help, act the part.” Bob is also criminally indecisive about giving the order to move on the CIA Annex a mile away and rescue U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), who died of smoke inhalation.
Is there any hard evidence that anyone — Clinton, Obama, our boy Bob — ever issued a “stand-down” order? The film both exploits and dodges the issue. I’m being generous to say that the script barely sketches in the other GRS operatives, including Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman). Their phone-home flashbacks are the stuff of crass tearjerking. And Bay, whose name on a movie should serve as a leper’s bell to all those who think they’re getting the “true” story, keeps jacking up the shootouts, firebombs, vehicle chases and a bus explosion that you won’t find in Zuckoff’s book. (Said bus doesn’t transform into a killing machine with dialogue, which is Bay’s one concession to subtlety.) There is a complex, compelling subject to be examined here that the director ignores. Facts bore Bay so he beats them into the submission to avoid his greatest fear: a dozing audience. Hoping to capitalize on the box-office bonanza of two previous rah-rah military movies that opened wide in January — Lone Survivor and American Sniper — Bay keeps blowing shit up for a punishing two hours and 24 minutes.
Is there an audience for this? Sadly, yes. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that cheers American heroes. But this one does so by reducing everything else to cardboard, its Libyan villains merely faceless aliens in need of vanquishing. Several critics have given 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi a pass, citing Bay’s skill at action engineering. It’s his failure at everything else that makes this movie as hard to endure as it is impossible to believe. #helpme