An American Ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya as a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
Michael Bay’s latest film is a true event action thriller about six members of a security team who fought to defend the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi in Libya after a series of terrorist attacks in 2012. The film reminded me of ‘Black Hawk Down’ (which is mentioned in the film) in the sense that it follows US soldiers under attack in a hostile land, and whilst the action scenes aren’t quite as visceral and thrilling as in that film, ’13 Hours’ is definitely successful in ramping up the tension and depicting the fraught atmosphere the soldiers are operating in at the time.
The film doesn’t start well and it takes a long time (too long) to get into the story. The opening stages spend a lot of time showcasing the clichéd approach to the material, with staples of military movies such as the discussions about missing family and getting home ‘soon’ to the irritating way soldiers in military movies speak to one another. We’re also introduced to the consulate chief (David Costabile), who is portrayed as the ‘difficult bureaucrat who doesn’t understand the situation’ and he feels like a character from a fictional action film as opposed to a story based on true events. Unsurprisingly, the historical accuracy of his depiction has been called into question. Thankfully the film improves significantly once the scene setting is done and we move on to the action.
For the most part this is well directed and Bay successfully builds up the suspense and shows the tension for the people operating in this hostile land. He’s particularly successful at generating tension and outlining the powderkeg of an environment the characters are in as we approach the attacks, with small moments such as a glass breaking or the ambassador noting a change in the atmosphere serving as small reminders that something bad is about to happen. You can feel the danger and the fear in the characters and this is only amplified when the ambassador’s compound is attacked. Whilst the action sequences at the compound are confusing and difficult to follow, I think that is partly the point. In this fraught environment, the soldiers had no idea who was ‘friendly’ or who was an enemy and that feeds into the paranoia and difficulty of trying to operate.
One of the things the film does struggle with is that the story itself doesn’t directly lend itself to a cinematic adaptation. Beyond the attack at the compound, the fighting is mostly contained to the consulate where it is essentially a siege on the people inside. This leads to a lot of shooting back and forth before heavier weaponry is introduced, and this toing and froing isn’t as compelling. The film does have strong performances to fall back on, and the likes of John Krasinski, James Badge Dale and Pablo Schreiber in particular do make you care about the fates of their characters, which is key in a film like this. I think for the most part the film does justice to a terrible ordeal, but the overwhelming feeling at the end is at the pointlessness of the whole situation, with dead on both sides and no progress made. This event is really just a sad statement about the situation in the world today. Whilst the film was marketed at conservatives in the US and is obviously military based, I don’t think the film was overly ‘pro America’, and it is relatively restrained as far as Bay concerned. The film does show that many of the locals helped the Americans out against their attackers and it does show the cost of the attacks on the local people as well (albeit only briefly).
’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi‘ is a solid action/war thriller about a terrifying true life ordeal, but it is overly long and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table in this genre. All the same, I enjoyed watching it.
Directed By: Michael Bay
Starring: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, David Costabile, Alexia Barlier, Peyman Moaadi, Matt Letscher and Toby Stephens