Michael Bay doesn't just make Transformers movies; on occasion he tells true stories. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi isn't one of them. The film fits into the same conserva-fantasy zone that American Sniper occupies, in that it wraps heroic stories in a thick layer of Fox News-endorsed bullcrap. The attack on our diplomatic outpost in Benghazi in 2012 has been a powder keg issue ever since, and while numerous investigations have revealed the full story of what happened, that hasn't stopped some from pushing a phony story of government disinterest in the lives of besieged Americans.
13 Hours, which declares itself a "true story" right from the outset, is surprisingly apolitical for a film that is obviously political. Sure, screenwriter Chuck Hogan, adapting the book by Mitchell Zukoff, includes long debunked tales of "stand down orders" and other acts of governmental ineptitude, but for the most part it's a straight-forward action movie full of explosions, bullets, foreign baddies, and true American heroes making incredible sacrifices.
A buffed up, heavily-bearded John Krasinski is Jack Silva, the newest member of an elite security team assigned to the CIA outpost in Benghazi, Lybia. Like the other five members of his squad, Jack is a married man with young kids to care for. While these men aren't soldiers anymore, they live the life of soldiers, and that means being away from home for long stretches of time. Much of the first hour is spent establishing their home lives in true Bay fashion; a quick conversation with the wife and kids over Skype, a moment of quiet reflection at missing key moments in their lives. Subtlety has never been Bay's strong suit and it never will be, but he has a knack for making you feel something for his thinly-drawn characters, and he does a pretty good job of it here, too. That lack of subtlety carries over to the depiction of the Ivy League-educated agents the team is assigned to protect. They're fat, lazy, clueless, and arrogant; basically they are walking disasters just begging for something awful to happen so they can be saved by the awesome heroes in their midst.
It isn't long before the unstable region blows up, and the consulate housing Ambassador Christopher Stevens is overrun by terrorists. The security team aren't officially sanctioned to help, and are told frequently to "stand down", but they dive into the firefight guns blazing, orders be damned. And that seems to be the recurring theme throughout 13 Hours, that these men, all real people whose experiences at Benghazi informed this story, put their lives on the line while the government sat around twiddling its thumbs. It's a message that will certainly appeal to the anti-government sentiment that's out there right now, but the film doesn't outright indict President Obama or Hillary Clinton. What it gets absolutely right is the confusion there on the ground, the paranoia of not knowing who to trust.
Bay seems to have wanted an approach similar to Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, but he doesn't have the patience or the nuance to pull it off. Instead the film is little more than a series of gun battles, with explosions lighting up the sky like firecrackers and bullets zipping by like Star Wars laser fire. The action is intense and Bay choreographs it smartly in a way that is easy to follow, something he's not always so good at. He leaves just enough breathing room for the men to quip with another, their deadpan humor filling the few quiet spaces. Krasinski is joined by a rugged group of stars including Max Martini, James Badge Dale, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, and scene-stealer Pablo Schreiber. Their characters get lost in the fog of battle but the performances are solid and worthy of the men they are portraying.
Some are hoping 13 Hours will help keep Benghazi as a Presidential campaign issue, but chances are the only people who will be inflamed by it are those who already are. Most will see it as a brief, entertaining diversion until Bay's next Transformers movie.
Rating: 3 out of 5