Doubleback Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Modern warfare is something we see quite a bit from Hollywood, especially in recent years. So much so, that we see one perhaps once a year. I am not saying we should ever have more or less of a genre, I like anything and everything. The one thing I hope for each year is that filmmakers challenge themselves and bring us something we haven't seen before. If not, then goddammit, tell us a good story.
That is the joy and curse of a modern warfare movie. So much of it is so much of the same that I wonder what we can get from it. I know that's almost sacrilegious to say, being an American. We are hardwired to love anything and everything being made about the United States military, and if one person even has the faintest of criticisms against them, then a million of people will jump down your throat, not caring about your message. Because, you know, those people died for your freedoms. I appreciate my country's military, I have family and friends who currently serve or who have served in the military. What I say about any military movie is about the movie, not the military. No movie is above criticism, no matter the subject matter.
I hope my dear readers can understand that, but "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is just a mediocre affair. It's well-acted, its beautifully shot, and there is sincere (yet familiar) story about bravery and goodwill. But being directed by Michael Bay, lots of Bay-isms bleed through in this production. It's an editing nightmare, its overly-long with several stretches that could have easily been taken out of the movie and once again, Bay is more invested in the mechanics of the hardware instead of the characters. The final stretch of the film is one ongoing action piece, and it feels like I am watching someone play "Call of Duty." The villains of the film are targets that seemingly pop out of nowhere, and are easily shot down.
On Sept. 11, 2012, Islamic militants attack the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and Sean Smith, an officer for the Foreign Service. Stationed less than one mile away are members (James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini) of the Annex Security Team, former soldiers assigned to protect operatives and diplomats in the city. As the assault rages on, the six men engage the combatants in a fierce firefight to save the lives of the remaining Americans. The men played by Dale, Krasinski and Martini are brave men, and they overcame impossible odds going behind enemy lines when they were told by the CIA to stand down. But so that is so similar to just about every war movie coming out these days that I feel I need more. I also need to feel emotionally invested in these characters. That is a harder to do when these former soldiers feel like every soldier we have ever met in a movie before. Yes, they have cute families and yes they are attuned to popular culture, couldn't we get a little more to identify with? The actors do what they can to make these characters count and they try to mold some realism in them, but this feels so much like going through the motions that I didn't care.
There is a scene early in the movie where Dale and Krasinski's characters are trying to get to their CIA base and are stopped by a makeshift toll road for inspection. Its unclear if these are good Libyans or bad Libyans, because there are plenty of both in this movie, but the American's don't like being stuck in a toll and so they threatened to bomb the toll and the workers families. Yes, I get it, they had guns in their face, but I feel getting the entire family involved would have been a PR nightmare at home, even for Fox News. Usually in these movies, American soldiers are actually quite noble, the men in this movie are a depressing lot.
There is a lot of boring stuff in this movie, material we really didn't need, before we get to the rescue mission. The fight to protect the rest of the American personnel is boring, disorienting and confusing. As I stated above, there are good Libyans and bad Libyans, and when the characters can't even figure out which is which, that's a problem for the audience. I don't look for exciting fight scenes in a war film, but I don't want to feel the intensity and feel the stakes of the movie. The last stretch of film feels so much like a video game that I don't know why I should care. With characters that already have paper-thin characterization, I don't feel close to anybody.
The great war films are great because they created stakes that make us care. They don't tell us that the men and women we are seeing are brave, they show us why they were brave. They flesh out their characters and make sure the audience cares about them. After so many fine examples made over the years, I figured making a movies in this genre would be easier, but Bay missed the boat almost completely. It a movie that tells us so much without showing it that its a rather infuriating experience. Sure, it looks pretty, but I need more than the pretty pictures, especially for a movie about our military.
FINAL GRADE: C-