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.
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)