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Michael Bay’s 13 Hours Says Nothing New But Says It Well Enough

By  · Published on January 14th, 2016

Paramount Pictures

Michael Bay loves America. More specifically, he loves the men (and the women who kneel beside them) who put their lives on the line to stand up and fight for what’s right. This isn’t news to anyone who’s seen more than a couple of his movies, but while that Axe-scented affection has always been present it’s also typically been compartmentalized within a larger narrative.

13 Hours, by contrast, moves his fetishistic, slow-motion affair with manly men, shiny weaponry, flags that ripple, and things that go boom directly into the center of the frame. They remain there until the bitter, bloody end too, so if Bay’s hairy-chested strain of patriotism is anathema to your state of mind then I recommend skipping it all together as you won’t be exiting the theater as a convert. Pairing this world view with a recent and politically-charged historical event is guaranteed to “confirm” certain political leanings while irritating others, but that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, does it?

The much-discussed attacks on two U.S.-held compounds in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, 2012, are the focus here, but rather than take a big picture approach the film narrows in on the six ex-military contract workers thrust into a fight against overwhelming odds. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) takes point, and it’s his arrival to the city that introduces viewers to the lay of the land. He joins the five other Americans tasked with being back-pocket protection for CIA staff at a not-so secret compound, but their typically boring detail is modified when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens arrives for a few days at a makeshift embassy nearby.

The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks gives rise to an organized assault on Stevens’ dwelling, and as local security forces abandon their posts the ambassador and his small protection detail are overrun. Jack and the rest of his team – including Rone (James Badge Dale), Boone (David Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa), Oz (Max Martini), and Tanto (Pablo Schreiber) – suit up to assist, but their sniveling, condescending CIA boss, Bob (David Costabile), forbids them from getting involved. Bureaucratic delays, excessive caution, and incredibly poor decision-making skills fuel his resistance, and by the time they make their move it’s too late for the ambassador. Worse, the attackers are readying a second assault on the CIA compound.

Bay’s twelfth feature is neither his longest (Pearl Harbor, 183m) nor his shortest (Bad Boys, 118m), but it’s probably the first of his films that won’t have you pausing periodically to look at your watch. Politics aside, 13 Hours is a siege film, and in that simple regard it’s a blistering success. Our heroes are likable guys, the challenge facing them is daunting, and the action sequences are frequent, tense, and brutal affairs that showcase beauty in the film-making and horror in the deadly results.

Most of the action takes the form of the team’s efforts to hold back waves of attackers from their rooftop perches, and the scenes build suspense before intense bursts of gunfire and bloodshed shatter the night. Shadowy forces move quietly toward the compound, all hell breaks loose, and then the cycle starts again. It’s never dull and continually tense. One of the film’s non-siege oriented action highlights is a car chase and assault that also works as an ad for Mercedes’ bulletproof upgrade. It’s also a rare break from the team as it’s mostly other Americans behind the wheel and exchanging gun-fire at forty miles per hour in a car that takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’.

Paramount Pictures

Typical action-movie problems rear their Medusa-like heads in between the gunfire as Chuck Hogan’s script reveals paper-thin characterizations, jingo-istic dialogue, and a throbbing desire to paint these six as absolute heroes devoid of any flaws or faults. Cliches mount as one character discovers his wife back home is expecting and another states (unwisely) that this is his “one last job.” CIA agents and staffers fall into two categories with Bob the asshole and the rest simply helpless. One female agent’s high point is delivering snacks to the men, an achievement that stands in contrast to a later scene that sees her ask one of them what she can do to help – as he stands there with his left arm literally hanging from nothing more than a flap of skin.

The men are berated several times with the main theme being that they’re dumb muscle while the CIA agents and bureaucrats are smart college grads who know what they’re doing. The flip-side, told more so in action than dialogue, is the equally one-dimensional view that these six men are the only ones who know what’s really going on – they predict everything that eventually goes wrong, they see the frivolity of U.S. involvement, and they even have the foresight to know that this event will be a black mark for the State Department for years to come. On a more personal front, all six are absolute sweethearts who poke friendly fun at each other but wouldn’t dream of voicing a bigoted, racist, or sexist thought. A heat-of-battle tampon joke is as crass as they get, because again, these men are perfect, untouchable heroes brought to innocuous life by affable actors.

One offshoot of that is the script’s oft-repeated observation that “you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” but at no point do these guys speak a derogatory word or phrase about the dark-skinned enemy. Again and again our guys pause, finger on the trigger, and wonder if the men approaching are friend or foe, and that serves to increase the unease and tension while simultaneously highlighting that the majority of the locals aren’t out for American blood. “Hello Captain America! I’m fighting for my country,” says one to Krasinski’s character as he joins the team to repel the aggressors, and it’s to Bay’s and Hogan’s credit that we get to experience the fear of an indistinguishable enemy while still valuing that there’s something here to distinguish.

The film’s primary thesis – aside from stating that these men are heroes, did I mention that yet? – is that the flames of this event were lit and fanned by major mistakes on the part of those in charge. From the local CIA chief all the way up to an unnamed Secretery of State and POTUS, poor judgement and improper priorities led to tragedy. Regardless of your political beliefs that degree of bureaucratic fumbling isn’t difficult to imagine, but the film’s big misstep is the claim by it and our heroes is that the ambassador’s life would have been saved had they been unleashed sooner. It’s an irresponsible unknown to say that so boldly, especially when even by the film’s presentation it seems highly unlikely.

Strictly speaking, and I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. It’s possible to dislike or disagree with a film’s politics, characters, or stance while still finding value or – gasp! – entertainment in what you see onscreen. It’s true. You can believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and still respect the epic construct of Oliver Stone’s JFK. You can be pro-gun control and still love A Christmas Story. You can despise the talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and still be in absolute awe of the magical cluster-fuck that is Winter’s Tale. (Okay, that last one is more of an off-topic personal example.)

If you think 13 Hours is going to offend or irritate you then guess what, it probably will, and again, there are numerous legitimate issues in the film worth criticizing, but as an action film it’s an exciting, entertaining, and unflinching experience. So as you stand there debating whether or not to see the movie you should remember one thing. It’s your birthright as Americans to be entertained by ideas you disagree with – and it’s bearded men like these six heroes who fought bravely to give you that freedom. Probably.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.