Michael Bay's Benghazi movie is an unexpectedly apolitical Rorschach test

It turns out the Transformers director is just on the side of explosions


It's impossible to make a movie about the 2012 Benghazi attack that isn't political on some level. Exactly what happened on September 11th and 12th at a beleaguered Libyan diplomatic mission and a nearby covert CIA outpost has been endlessly disputed in forums from Congressional investigations to the comment boards of online news sites. (In both cases, mostly by people with preconceived notions and no interest in listening to each other.) Just choosing what version of events to put on screen, and how to portray them, involves taking a side. Given how the attacks have been politicized, even the choice to make a film in the first place is a political act. So is releasing it in an election year, and so is releasing it in January, around the same time Lone Survivor and American Sniper became hits with conservative viewers in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

There's been plenty of public sneering about the idea of Michael Bay, director of the Bad Boys and the Transformers films, bringing his semi-coherent style to a fatal attack on American citizens abroad. But perhaps surprisingly, Bay seems determined to keep his film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi out of the political realm. It turns out his motives are no different than they've ever been: he's a commercial purveyor of adventure stories aimed at excitable teenagers. Turning the Benghazi attacks into a simple story of heroism and courage under fire lets him set aside the question of who was at fault and who stands to profit politically, while focusing on his longstanding favorite question: how big can he get those onscreen explosions?

The Office's John Krasinski stars as Jack Da Silva, the most recent arrival on a six-man team assisting with security around a Benghazi CIA base. As Jack arrives, deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's death has left the region unstable. Most foreign embassies have closed. The dictator's private arsenal has been looted, dispersing heavy weaponry throughout the region; at one point, the protagonists hustle a pair of visiting lobbyists through a street market where fruit stands set next to booths peddling RPGs and crates of missiles. Getting visitors safely to and from the local airport, or from the CIA base into town to make business connections, requires twitchy nerves, fast driving, and a capacity for violence. Jack has been hired to provide those services, along with the team's other five military veterans: Tyrone S. "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini), "Boon" (David Denman), John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Orange Is The New Black's Pablo Schreiber).

Bay doesn't do much to distinguish these men from each other, and their uniformly tough, grim performances don't differentiate them either, apart from a few stray details: Boon is the literary one who reads Joseph Campbell. Tanto is louder, Oz is gruffer, Rone is an old friend of Jack's from past tours of duty. Most of them have kids. Some of them are approaching the end of their contracts. They have different military experience and specialties, laid out in a quick early speech, then lost in the blur of combat. But Bay takes care to establish that all of them have loved ones at home, and that as macho as they are with each other, each man has a soft side for the people he loves.

Then a large band of well-armed enemies attack a nearby villa housing an American ambassador on the evening of September 11th. No assistance seems to be forthcoming, either from local officials or the US military, so the contractors intervene on their own moral authority. When the attack spreads to the CIA base, they defend it with the weapons they have, holding out against a much larger, better-armed force while frantically calling for backup that seems in no hurry to arrive.

Missing amid the action is any solid information on who's attacking, or with what motives, or exactly what's holding back the support teams. The Strain co-creator Chuck Hogan scripted 13 Hours as an adaptation of Mitchell Zuckoff's 2014 book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, and both book and film center on interviews with the surviving CIA contractors. (The three seen in the film under their real names have been making the publicity rounds in support of the film.) Hogan doesn't depend entirely on the team's point of view, but he touches lightly, if at all, on most of the topics that have become controversial talking points. Competing theories about the motives behind the attacks get a tossed-off line apiece. The security team complains about how American belt-tightening has left them short of needed security measures and proper equipment, but they never indict specific authorities, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama, whose names are never mentioned within the film. No one delves deeply into whether the CIA base is primarily tracking weapons, or funneling them to pet causes. The script is more interested in what it feels like to be in a firefight, to fight through fears, and to lose comrades in combat.

Its portrayal of the soldiers is suspiciously idealistic, framing them as picture-perfect noble warriors. They're enviably brave and competent when danger threatens, and loyal and altruistic even (or especially) under threat of death. But Bay's films have always had a strong contempt for entrenched authority, while fetishizing the bodies, weapons, and mindsets of the feet-on-the-ground soldiers who get the job done. The Transformers dynamic, where military higher-ups are weaselly, bombastic bullies who just get in the way of front-line fighters, is mirrored here through CIA base chief "Bob" (Breaking Bad's David Costabile), a pudgy nebbish who contemptuously emasculates his security consultants; one says Bob "gets his jollies pushing around alphas because he can." Bob is the man who tells Jack's cohort to stand down, to stay on the base instead of rushing to rescue the ambassador. Congressional investigations eventually concluded no such order was given, but the contractors say it happened; Bay puts it in the film, but leaves it open to interpretation whether the pseudonymous Bob was acting on orders from higher up, or covering his own ass and his own base.

Other familiar Bay issues come into play: he gives a large chunk of the film over to intense combat, but turns it into a chaotic, confusing blur with no fixed points of reference. The action only becomes coherent during the base defense, which benefits from a unidirectional attack moving toward defenders in fixed positions. Bay loves his airborne shots, and his camera circles the engagement zones so often and so frantically, it feels like he mounted GoPros on the local buzzards as they waited out the battle. His tremendous sentimentality is a major issue, bogging down his efforts at realism in flag-waving, tear-jerking scenes that try to make every heartfelt emotion land with mortar-fire force. And he can't resist a few garish CGI touches, like explosions that rip human bodies into gory sections — in one case, causing a character's concealed family photo to blow loose and fly mournfully up to an overhead camera, so audiences can grab a poignant peek at the freshly bereaved.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of benghazi

(Christian Black / Paramount Pictures)

But for once, Bay dodges some of his most adolescent impulses. His weirdly juvenile humor and equally juvenile sexuality don't come into play. The few briefly glimpsed women in the story are partners rather than playthings, either holding down the homefront or proving competent in a crisis. In its own hackneyed way,13 Hours gropes for racial sensitivity, showing Libyans working and fighting alongside the Americans, rather than blurring into an amorphous mass of evil stereotypes. (There's plenty of questionable material that keeps the locals alien and inscrutable — especially their generally nonchalant attitude toward the battle taking over their streets — but given how low Bay has set his personal sensitivity bar with his slang-shucking robots and gay-panic jokes, just portraying the locals as human seems like a step up.) And while the story often feels scattered and bloated, it consistently feels like Bay was making every effort to focus tightly on the bravery of a few men he finds admirable, and to respect their self-image, their actual unadorned achievements, their skills, and their visceral losses on the field.

It's not so much a balanced movie as a narrow one

None of this will stop viewers on all sides of the issues from seeing exactly what they want to see in the film. Bay and Hogan leave enough hooks for left-wing pundits to claim he's exonerating their side, while conservative pundits can claim he's vindicating theirs. It's not so much a balanced movie, equalizing all perspectives, as a narrow one that doesn't look outside its focus on visceral action. But it's an effective Rorschach blot of a film, more likely to confirm viewers' prejudices than challenge their beliefs, or try to inform them about the controversies.

And that alone makes 13 Hours an interesting experiment, if not always a successful one. Bay's strongly anti-authoritarian streak has always extended to dismissing his critics, professional or otherwise. Here, it seems like it also extends to resenting the politicos trying to control the Benghazi narrative. In a contentious environment where any other filmmaker might carefully consider the political balance and the message he's sending, Bay's successes and indifference to outside agendas gives him the freedom to ignore party lines and tell the story of bravery and violence that interests him. It doesn't make for a nuanced film. 13 Hours is sometimes crass, sometimes silly, and often broad. But it's still the most direct, and even honest, Benghazi movie we're likely to get.