When a movie starts with the words “This is a true story,” your skepticism-ometer ought to kick in to overdrive. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is most assuredly no exception. The film does its damnedest to be nonpolitical by mentioning Obama just once (and only as “the POTUS”) and Hillary not at all — something being roundly ignored by reddest of the red state-minded, of course. It is, however, clearly designed to instill maximum armchair-warrior outrage with a minimum of thought. Well, it’s a Michael Bay movie, so this is no big surprise. Anyone who slogged through his Pearl Harbor (2001) knows the drill by now — right down to the bomb point-of-view shot. A lot of bang for a lot of bucks with a broad, highly colored, audience-pandering account of history and not a scintilla of nuance. Nuance is unknown to Bay, whose idea of characters is pure cardboard and whose sense of humor seems to begin and end with animals having sex. Remember the rats who would copulate on cue in 2003’s Bad Boys II? Their equivalent can be found here — twice. I am unclear as to whether he finds running over dead bodies funny or just cool, but that is also recycled from Bad Boys II.
What we get here is a mind- (and butt-) numbing 144 minutes of Michael Bayhem — interspersed with appallingly clunky stabs at heart-string tugging and dime-store jingoism. The movie takes 45 minutes to get to the actual story that, according to the film, took 13 hours. Bay makes it feel like no more than four or five hours, thanks to the almost constant barrage of shooting and explosions. The only relief we get from this comes in the form of flashbacks to the family back in the U.S. or pseudo-deep conversations among the six mostly interchangeable “secret soldiers.” All such scenes are underscored with the same dreary “emotive chords.” It scarcely qualifies as music, just as a set of sounds to tell the viewer what to feel.
It is a film filled with noise and firepower and shameless bombast. It’s The Green Berets (1968) for the 21st century, which is to say that letters from home have been replaced by Skyping with the family. The other, somewhat puzzling, change is that these soldiers (who are actually paid contractors and not U.S. troops) are presented as almost completely at sea regarding what they’re doing in Libya in the first place. Is it money? Is it an addiction to warfare? (That might have made for an interesting take, despite the fact that The Hurt Locker got there back in 2008.) Unfortunately, John Wayne’s not there to tell some appealing little Libyan boy, “You’re what this war’s all about.” But there’s not exactly a war. And, goodness knows, there are no appealing little Libyan boys in 13 Hours.
Since the film tries to be strictly apolitical, it opts to take a vague stance against any and all thumb-twiddling, pencil-pushing bureaucrats who keep these soldiers from rushing in. He’s embodied here by the head of the local CIA (their boss) and is merely named “Bob” in the film, strongly suggesting that the character played by David Costabile is constructed specifically for the film in order to provide someone to order them to “stand down.” (Since there has been no evidence that they were ever told to do this, it’s clearly the safest approach — just ask any legal department.)
In the end, this is just another bad Michael Bay movie. You get a handful of well-executed action scenes, even more incomprehensible ones where it’s impossible to tell who is doing what to whom (or even who is who) and about a dime’s worth of dialogue. (Our heroes call each other “bro” — a lot.) I freely concede that the scene where the embassy compound is set on fire is brilliantly executed and nightmarish but struck me as empty posturing in the service of blowing “stuff up real neat.” Its apparent target audience will undoubtedly disagree with this assessment and insist on viewing the movie as a political game changer, but before enumerating unborn poultry they might also note that 13 Hours is coming in fourth at the box office, and it’s a long, long way from so much as breaking even. Rated R for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images and language.