Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is the perfect storm of stereotypes, fear mongering and questionable politics in an overly stylized, testosterone-fueled, action thrill ride. Give Bay a little credit: hand him a real world war story that has become the subject of heated conspiracy theories and he’ll still find a way to pack it with explosions, unseemly blue lens flares and canted angles designed to make his beefed up soldiers look like Transformers.
Despite being called “13 Hours,” Bay’s film takes place in the few days prior to the September 11, 2012 attack on an American consulate in Libya. He follows six ex-Marines and Navy SEALs considered a secret security team stationed on a compound near the American ambassador’s consulate and how they took up the fight in the 13 hours of the attack.
All six soldiers are “alphas,” hulking bros who constantly flaunt their ego and all have incredible facial hair. We see them hauling monster truck tires with their shirts off or, despite being undercover, just looking boss in aviator sunglasses. One even has a tattoo of an open scar that shows he “bleeds” red, white and blue. Everyone who’s not an “alpha” just gets in the way, whether it’s their uptight, pencil pushing commanding officer, the windbag political diplomat or the CIA field agents with other priorities. They call them “tools” and “cockbags.” They tell one woman they need her eyes and ears, not her mouth. And they brag about “chubbing” one officer’s clothes, also known as rubbing their dicks on everything.
This first hour of flexing lays the groundwork for 90 minutes straight of chaotic firefights and explosions. The camera movement is violent and turbulent, the editing is frenetic, the action is impossible to track, and Bay still finds room for quippy jokes and tough guy clichés.
For a war movie, Clint Eastwood was able to deliver more visceral and coherent action in “American Sniper.” But “13 Hours” isn’t anything we haven’t already seen from Bay, if not a retread of visual motifs across all his films. He remains obsessed with slow-motion explosions and shooting domineering low angles that gives everything badass proportions. Even the quieter moments are filled with chatter and the camera unable to hold focus on just one thing at a time. Bay has no interest in simmering tension, only action.
This is all harmless fun in a mindless “Transformers” movie, but in a film about Benghazi, Bay’s apolitical treatment of the material teeters from indifferent to irresponsible. “13 Hours” doesn’t concern itself with conspiracy theories, but little Easter eggs are scattered throughout, like a vague memo suggesting there could be an attack, or one agent commenting, “Does it seem like everybody knows what’s going on here but us?” They play like after thought teasers for a more sinister government cover-up.
Movies have long gotten away with making Nazis and zombies plausible villains in whatever situation you stick them in, but Bay may have finally elevated another figure into that canon: shifty-eyed terrorists. “American Sniper” didn’t score any points with the Muslim community, but although Bay has some Arabs playing for the home team, he’s far worse in suggesting that “it’s impossible to tell the good guys from the bad.” And don’t forget the shot of terrorists blasting AK-47 bullet holes into an American flag!
The incredible body count the six soldiers amass is mostly bloodless, but once an American goes down Bay holds nothing back. He can truly milk a death for all its worth, and in the same way that “American Sniper” brought out the military colors in its closing moments, “13 Hours” to its credit drops the machismo and manages a gut-wrenching finale.
But Bay isn’t fooling anyone that he’s really more interested in explosions than anything. There’s no conspiracy here.
1 ½ stars