In the end, I almost found myself wishing the film was actually worse so there’d be more interesting things to say about it. As I said before, if Bay was (visibly) setting out to make the anti-Obama-but-really-anti-Hillary hitpiece many assumed 13 HOURS would be, there’d at least be no shortage of material to chew over; and since the AMERICAN SNIPER crowd is all-but assured to treat it like one anyway so we’re going to drown in thinkpieces no matter what. Someday, Michael Bay is going to land on a story that actually compels him and also lines up with his aesthetic impulses and surprise everybody, but this isn’t the one.
The only thing anyone seems to want to know about 13 HOURS is whether or not it’s “political.” To me, that’s a stupid question – everything is political to one degree or another, and even if you try to not engage in such consciously people are going to read a political dimension into whatever they want to no matter what.
Same goes for the actual events (the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya) being dramatized: There shouldn’t really bemuch of a political dimension to an attack on a diplomat beyond “that’s not how you express whatever grievance you happen to have,” but everyone knows there will be anyway. What makes Benghazi especially irritating in terms of politicized tragedy is that it isn’t even politicized in an appropriate or meaningful way: There are real, serious questions to be asked and issues to be raised about these events, in terms of whether “we” (the U.S./West) should intervene in situations like Libya, why or why not, broader foreign policy, etc; but the only thing anyone in U.S. political circles has actually come to care about is whether or not Benghazi can/will/should be used as a cudgel with which to beat back the presidential candidacy of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Which, of course, begs a question of its own: Who’s going to be more obnoxious about 13 HOURS? Your racist, Trump-supporting/Fox-watching uncle on Facebook – or your overzealous bro’gressive cousin who keeps insisting you “FEEL THE BERN!!!!!” on Twitter?
As such, it would’ve been impossible for 13 HOURS to be fundamentally “apolitical” since even saying “it was sad that these people died” implies (fairly or not) a certain level of sympathy (if not explicit “support”) for they’re having been there in the first place which is essentially the key (non-sensationalized) political issue of the entire incident. And yet the film and director Michael Bay will almost-certainly be given positive marks (even in otherwise negative reviews) for “not being political,” on the grounds that they’ve managed to resist including a cutaway of a fiendishly-grinning Hillary explicitly ordering her underlings to feed the Americans to attackers before tossing a symbolic plastic army-man into her cartoonishly-oversized fireplace while lounging on a blood-red velvet couch sipping martinis with Huma Abbedin.
Not that it matters, of course: The mere existence of 13 HOURS as a button-pushing action-melodrama designed to make you sad (Michael Bay has somehow managed to go 11 movies before finally presenting a scene of an American flag being slow-motion shredded by a terrorist machine-gun) will likely be more than enough to guarantee that Fox, talk-radio and the Breitbart thugs to order their low-information hinterland acolytes to symbolically pack theatres over the next few weeks. Which is sort of darkly amusing, since the main thing that will end up distinguishing 13 HOURS from previous recipients of artificial right-wing box-office-inflation like PASSION OF THE CHRIST and AMERICAN SNIPER is that 13 HOURS isn’t a complete a total piece of shit.
It’s certainly not a great film, don’t misunderstand: This isn’t an especially well-made or important film, but it is a engaging and technically-superior action film that serves as a reminder that whatever else you think of Michael Bay when he shows up to work there are just certain things he does better than anyone else in the business; and lavishing near-pornographic love on depictions of high-end military machinery and the men wield it doing what they’re (both) built for in extended action setpieces is one of them. Whether or not it’s ghoulish to use a major recent tragedy like Benghazi as fodder for what’s effectively BLACK HAWK DOWN: THE ALL MONEY-SHOTS VERSION, it’s hard to deny – this guy can shoot the hell out of a firefight.
Dramatically, though, it’s another matter entirely. I don’t know or care to know Bay’s politics, but whatever they are the film stops short of assigning specific blame for the lack of manpower/support that dooms the victims of the attack apart from infrequently hammering that yeah, someone probably should have sent more men and/or guns. Apart from that fact being a likely disappointment to the Fox News crowd and a relief to the Clinton campaign, it’s net-effect for the film is that there’s an lack of dramatic tension visceral enough to compliment the action: Morally reprehensible or not, the “Evil Queen Hillary cravenly sacrified Our Boys to The Enemy!!!” version of this story would’ve at least been more narratively compelling than “Fighting men get the shit end of the stick – what else is new?,” which is where 13 HOURS decides to plant its slow-motion waving flag, save for the (theoretically) notable detail that there’s aren’t your typical fighting men.
Indeed, the one respect in which 13 HOURS opts to feign toward novelty is in offering what’s likely the first unambiguously-heroic portrait of private military contractors (read: mercenaries) in a modern/post-9/11 setting. In lieu of focusing on the diplomatic outpost housing ambassador Chris Stevens (the initial target of the attack), the story centers on a team of soldiers-for-hire stationed nearby as security for a covert CIA operation that’s technically not supposed to exist; a scenario which briefly threatens to present an intriguing dillema: These guys have the firepower, manpower and proximity to potentially rescue the diplomats and hold back the attack; but if they go active they risk causing an international incident by revealing their and The Agency’s technically-illegal presence in Benghazi.
Unfortunately, neither Bay nor the film seem particularly interested in any real exploration of that. The mercs are our heroes because they’re story has the most action-ready material and because they allow what would otherwise be a grueling siege/survival horror show to be fronted by quintessential embodiments of the Michael Bay hero: Hulking slabs of muscle hauling immense high-end weaponry with faces concealed behind indistinguishable beards and varying styles of mirrored sunglasses, with any potential narrative shading regarding their war-for-profit employment status repeatedly undercut in favor of reminders that they were soldiers, SEALs, Marines, Rangers etc beforehand.
Instead, the drama sets up a disappointingly rote dichotomy between the mercs and their CIA/State Department charges on an overstated-feeling class-divide: The Agents are all snobby, Ivy League-educated know-it-alls who are overconfident that they’ve “got this” and don’t need these boorish musclebound cavemen around getting the way; while the warriors are all noble, jovial ‘bros overflowing with common sense and working-class resolve, with David Costabile in the Walter Peck role as a dismissive/arrogant CIA Chief.
Sure, one get’s what they’re going for here and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a growing respect/experience divide between soldiers and those issuing orders in the 21stCentury military, but 13 HOURS version of it is Saturday morning cartoon-level business, to say nothing of how it (however inadvertently) plays into the stereotype of American soldiers as low-intelligence brutes when in fact U.S. military enlistees are (percentage-wise) better educated than the civilian population overall. It also, unfortunately, means that Chris Stevens is basically a non-entity in the story: They obviously can’t include “the” martyr of Benghazi among the snob meanies, but Bay clearly has zero interest in the heroics of anyone who isn’t hauling the latest and greatest in munitions or who doesn’t look like one of the guys from Altered Beast one power-up away from werewolf-mode; so Stevens is relegated to being a symbolic MacGuffin of only slightly greater import than the aforementioned bullet-riddled flag.
Still, once the actual siege and shooting gets underway and Bay is in his element, it’s hard not to be impressed. There’s enough deliberate chaos on display (that no one seems to know what’s going on or how to discern enemies from local-friendlies is a recurring theme) to mistake some of the bigger moments for examples of the time-filling hyperactive nonsense that clogs up the TRANSFORMERS movies, but overall Bay has seldom had better restraint and control of action geography or composition. The firefights are among the best-looking since ACT OF VALOR (though here going for glossy, high-contrast stylization as opposed to stark realism) and the big blowouts are seriously impressive – though it may have been a miscalculation to blatantly recycle the infamous “bomb’s eye view” shot from PEARL HARBOR in a key moment. It’s enough to make you wish, again, that Bay actually had something to say with all this – especially when you run into interesting but out-of-place feeling sequences like the “fun” he seems to have with the idea that the attackers are wielding heavy-arms they don’t actually know how to use versus a sudden left-turn wherein the anonymous enemy casualties are mourned by their loved ones.