Monday, January 25, 2016

'13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi' review

If it's January, you can bet that there's a military movie set to hit theaters. That has been the trend for the last couple years and it has worked wonders for the studios. To kick things off, Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty did modest business in 2012 and 2013, respectively. One year later, Lone Survivor seemed like an unlikely gamble, but with a bona fide movie star in Mark Wahlberg and a famous true story, it ended up with great reviews (75% on Rotten Tomatoes) and became a box office smash ($125 million). But that was only a warm-up act for Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. The Bradley Cooper-starred biopic broke out in January 2015, riding a wave of Oscar nominations to become the highest grossing film of 2014 with $350.1 million in the U.S. Now, January has rolled around once again and another military action flick has washed up on American shores- Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

The topic of Benghazi is sure to arouse controversy whenever it's brought up in a conversation. The terrorist assault on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks cost four American lives and plenty of questions remain over what could have been done. Did Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do enough? Who's at fault for the attack? Could those lives have been saved? These questions still haunt America and its politics today, but thankfully, Michael Bay's film isn't overtly interested in these politics. Sure, there's a character that I'm pretty sure works as a representation of the Clinton/Obama inaction, but beyond that, the film is pretty straight-forward and surprisingly anti-war. A pulse-pounding and intense action thriller, Bay's film has plenty of flaws and yet, it still puts his considerable cinematic flair on display in an incredible effective flick. It may not have the prestige of the last few military flicks, but 13 Hours is a gritty, white-knuckle ride worth taking.

In 2012, Libya was one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Rocked by a revolution toppled the fascist dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the U.S. embassies in Tripoli and Benghazi were put in crisis mode in the early months of the year. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) takes the contract to head over to Benghazi with his old friend, Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), despite the fact that he has a wife and two young girls to care for. Along with five other members of an elite security team (Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini and Toby Stephens), Jack and Tyrone protect a secret U.S. compound from the constant dangers of the war-struck country.

Everything is relatively calm until disaster strikes in September. With Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) arriving in Benghazi soon, Tyrone and the security unit remain worried that the protection isn't quite up to speed. Stevens is welcomed at a local U.S. facility and gives a speech, but soon, a group of violent insurgents charge the mostly unprotected base. With very little security, Stevens and a group of U.S. citizens are put in grave danger. No backup, no friendly fire and no hope for a rescue plan- except from Jack and Tyrone's unit. Unfortunately, their chief of command (David Costabile) prevents them from intervening in the attack- he insists that there's more assistance coming from the government. But with the situation growing worse by the minute, the soldiers of Benghazi enter a living hell for 13 hours to save American lives from one of the worst terror attacks in recent history.

Subtlety isn't a word in Michael Bay's vocabulary. From his straight-forward action movies like Bad Boys II to the Transformers epics to his weird comedy/horror/drama Pain & Gain, Bay's movies exist more like blunt instruments- they pummel you and overwhelm the senses. And despite being a considerably more mature effort from the infamously wild director, Bay still hits you very hard with 13 Hours. This is a frenzied, explosive film and it is unrelentingly crazy for nearly 144 minutes. Bay is great at mayhem, but less so at emotion- despite the extraordinarily intense circumstances, I felt very little for these characters and some of the attempts at emotion felt a bit sentimental. But don't count that as too much of a discredit to the film- character depth isn't the goal of this flick.

If I'm being completely honest here- I don't know much about the real Benghazi attack or the details of how it went down. It's a talking point in American politics, but I still don't have much of a flashbulb memory of it like I do for Aurora or Sandy Hook. One of the strengths of Bay's film is that it immerses the viewer in the action. This is very much a minute-for-minute "you are there" account of the Benghazi attack and it does a terrific job at conveying the tragedy and insanity of what happened. You could walk into this film having no idea what the Benghazi attack was and walk out having a pretty solid understanding of the absolute pandemonium that occurred in September 2012.

And for that reason, Michael Bay was probably the right director to make this movie. Bay specializes in truly insane action and his latest outing features plenty of that. Over the course of its lengthy runtime, 13 Hours features enough blood, bullets and dirt to fill three other movies. There are moments where the film slows down, but for the most part, this is one long, roller-coaster of an action setpiece. The insanity primarily focuses on the violence, but Bay also does a phenomenal job of conveying the nuttiness of how many people were involved in this attack. There were random fighters on every side and it's terrifying to never quite know who's on what side. And while Bay's movies may be instruments of blunt force as described above, they're also experiences. It's almost a guarantee that you'll be tired by the end of a Michael Bay movie. 13 Hours is no different. It's an exhaustive trip to the movie theater and it fits with the theme of the movie.

Where Bay goes wrong with the action scenes is his tendency to make things feel like a video game. The Transformers films are infamous for being a non-stop barrage of action and they're often similar to watching a live-action video game. 13 Hours occasionally feels like a movie version of Call of Duty. The action is crazed and unhinged, but there's a video game sensibility to it that the movie just can't shake. The heroes tackle one problem and it's almost as if the movie pops a little "Next Level" sign up on the screen. The action becomes redundant at a point, and while I know that Bay is trying to create an authentic portrayal of real life events, there's something a bit mechanized about how he has structured this film.

There's also something rather phony and artificial about the film's emotional bend. A lot of the connections to the characters feel forced and inauthentic (quite often, the principle players are nearly interchangeable), with a bizarre flashback to Jack building a treehouse with his daughters that stands out as particularly bad. That said, 13 Hours features some surprisingly thoughtful meditations on the necessity of war and the futility of overseas interference. There's a terrific scene in the movie where, after several hours of fighting, Jack and Tyrone sit down and discuss what their children would think about them dying in a country that held no meaning to them and didn't want them there in the first place. It's a scene that is full of shocking depth and I was glad to see that sort of thematic message conveyed in what I was expecting to be a rather empty film.

13 Hours may not reach the heights of some of the other recent military movies, but it's a thrillingly hard-hitting action movie that gives a thorough and intense portrayal of one of the defining events of our time. A tad overlong, yet always captivating, this flick is led to success by Michael Bay's wonderful cinematic eye and a constant stream of action that will have you on the edge of your seat. In a January filled with some truly awful cinematic dreck, 13 Hours stands out as the first genuinely good movie of 2016.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Variety, Guardian, Screen Rant, Joblo

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