WASHINGTON — It’s become one of the biggest political footballs of the past four years, pitting Congressional Republicans against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a controversy that has undoubtedly shaped our political conversation heading into this weekend’s Iowa Caucuses.
But regardless of your politics, the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was an undisputed tragedy resulting in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Now, director Michael Bay explores the attack in the new action thriller “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” It opens after the U.S.-assisted overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as fresh recruit Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski) joins a team of six security contractors: Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini).
They’re stationed at a CIA annex a mile away from the ill-fated U.S. diplomatic outpost, where Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), Glen Doherty (Toby Stephens) and others are fatally outnumbered. As hand-wringing CIA base chief Bob (David Costabile) hesitates to authorize reinforcements, the secret security contractors choose to take matters into their own hands.
Going into the film, any moviegoer would have ample reason to doubt Bay’s filmmaking relevance.
After all, it’s been roughly 20 years since Bay made anything decent with “The Rock” (1996) and “Armageddon” (1998). The former was one of the best action flicks that Sean Connery or Nicolas Cage ever made set against a memorable Alcatraz backdrop, while the latter was selected for the prestigious Criterion Collection, as Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton and Steve Buscemi pioneered the sort of sci-fi action comedy found to this day in movies like “The Martian” (2015).
But that was the late ’90s. Since then, we’ve seen “Pearl Harbor” (2001), which ignored lessons from “From Here to Eternity” by putting its attack climax too early in the film; “Bad Boys II” (2003), which gave Will Smith and Martin Lawrence some cheap laughs in an inferior sequel; “The Island” (2005), which was panned for its “THX 1183” similarities: “Pain & Gain” (2013), which paired Mark Wahlberg & The Rock for a mediocre buddy comedy; and five bombastic “Transformers” (2007-2017).
But if you doubted Bay’s ability to handle the seriousness of Benghazi, consider yourself pleasantly surprised in “13 Hours.” Yes, we get over-the-top slow-motion and obligatory patriotic imagery, but it’s far more restrained filmmaking than we’ve come to expect from Bay. That’s a compliment.
Likewise, if you shuddered upon realizing American lives were in the hands of Pam Beesly’s two romantic rivals from “The Office” — Jim (Krasinski) and Roy (Denman) — you needn’t worry. The ensemble cast works to the film’s advantage with convincing turns by Schreiber (“Manchurian Candidate”), Dale (“World War Z”), Fumusa (“Nurse Jackie”) and Costabile (“Breaking Bad”).
While the performances are all quite solid, the script could have done more to flesh them out.
Based on a book by Mitchell Zuckoff (who previously penned Robert Altman’s 2009 biography), “13 Hours” is adapted by Chuck Hogan, who co-created FX’s “The Strain” (2014-present) and penned such novels as “Prince of Thieves,” which ultimately became Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2010).
Despite such impressive credits, “13 Hours” marks Hogan’s feature film screenwriting debut, which shows as the script pays frustrating lip service to the characters’ backstories. We get a Skype call here, a flashback there, but none of it carries much weight, particularly a stunted flashback of a tree fort with cliche dialogue: “One day you’ll wake up and realize you missed the best part of life.”
We never quite get the character study that Kathryn Bigelow gave Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) or that Clint Eastwood provided for Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper” (2013).
Perhaps the best comparison is the Best Picture winner “Argo” (2012), directed by Bay’s own “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor” star Affleck. While that film depicted the storming of the U.S. Embassy during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, its release came on Oct. 12, 2012 — just a month after the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, 2012. The chilling comparisons were very fresh in viewers’ minds.
Conversely, “13 Hours” arrives a full four years after the attack, allowing Benghazi fatigue to set in after countless congressional hearings, Sunday talk-show debates over the existence of protest videos, and endless media sound bytes. The Associated Press recently compiled an in-depth fact check, but this film critic would’ve rather seen Bay take a concrete stance on what went wrong.
If you’re anti-war, you appreciated “Argo” for its opening animation of the Shah, providing context for anti-American sentiments by the Iranian militants. If you’re hawkish, you appreciated “Zero Dark Thirty” for suggesting that U.S. torture lead to Osama Bin Laden. We can debate these opinions all we want, but at least the filmmakers took an angle to explore. “13 Hours” shies away for 2 1/2 hours.
Perhaps this was Bay’s attempt to make the film apolitical, but in doing so, we miss out on the larger picture. Why did these Libyan militants storm the U.S. compound? Was the State Department negligent in its response? Was there a cover-up after the fact to save face on a 9/11 anniversary?
When the end credits roll, we still don’t have the answers to these important questions. All that’s left is a gripping portrait of these men, ending in a creative final image that is undeniably touching. It’s a reminder to never forget these brave men on the front lines around the world, not only the ones who receive the medals and the parades, but also the unsung heroes behind the scenes risking it all.
If only the movie took similar risks.