It’s hard to imagine a less appealing notion than Michael Bay tackling the 2012 attack on a United States embassy outpost and C.I.A. base in Benghazi, Libya. More than three years after the fact, the incident has become both the flashpoint of America’s disastrously half-assed intervention in Libya and the subject of so many farcical show trials that Benghazi has become a meme for right-wing paroxysm. To be sure, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi certainly lives up to its sardonic nickname, “Bayghazi,” as it contains all the flashy but incomprehensible camera tricks, bad jokes, and the even worse self-seriousness that categorizes Bay’s work, though his typical distrust of government is mostly evinced here in the huffy impotence and curt officiousness of the C.I.A. station’s feckless chief (David Costabile).
The conflict between Bay’s respect for the men he profiles and his natural inclination toward simple-minded cliché results in early scenes that struggle for a level of focus that’s almost necessitated by the film’s added patina of topicality. The opening, for instance, consists of tedious setup and bland exposition that remind the viewer that Bay, for all his fidgety cutting and slapdash composition, is too often painstakingly dull. No matter who writes his films, characters are always introduced the way they are in Dan Brown novels: as a summary of credentials in place of a personality.
For once, though, Bay manages to turn his forced displays of alpha-male bona fides into a boon, as in an early scene that depicts Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski) reuniting with friend and fellow Navy SEAL Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale) upon arriving in Libya to join the C.I.A. base’s Global Response Staff. Their meaningless exchanges of war-buddy clichés suddenly drop into cold professionalism when a local militia shuts down their street and threatens them. So much of Bay’s cinema pushes masculine performativity into realms of abject parody, but the speed and calm with which the two men pull sidearms on rifle-brandishing militants and intimidate them with their lack of fear offers a rare instance of this image-barraging filmmaker actually showing rather than telling.
Of course, when the action gets underway, Bay unleashes that flashy id of his, and all of his flaws as a titan of blockbuster filmmaking come to the fore. This is a siege film that has the benefit of spatial limitations and architectural coherence in the two chief settings of the secret base and the embassy building. Nonetheless, the framing and editing are so haphazard that scenes of the embassy being overrun are completely baffling. In one shot, insurgents burst through the front gate. Cut to Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) emerging from the front door with a look of horror on his face at the incoming carnage, then back and forth and back again many times until one barely parcels from the fragments of visual data that the rebels and the ambassador are at completely different ends of the compound despite how the first cut gave the impression that they were right next to each other.
Bay will be Bay, but the actual look of the film is something else entirely, thanks to Dion Beebe, the DP responsible for the form-stretching digital cinematography of Collateral and Miami Vice. It’s easy to spot Beebe’s touch from the outset in the eerily smooth yet unstable images. Bay may be the king of explosions, but Beebe makes him use some realistic fireworks, and the resulting frames of pixels momentarily struggling to make sense of the sudden outburst of movement and color are more exciting for their minute detail than the epic scale of the director’s pyrotechnics elsewhere.
It’s a shame to see Beebe’s talents chopped up to the point of gibberish, but when a shot gets even an extra second to breathe, it’s obvious how much he elevates Bay’s work. There’s something to be said for the director’s turn to less expensive films after crafting quarter-billion-dollar toy commercials for the better part of a decade; both Pain & Gain and 13 Hours are the best-looking, most thoughtfully aestheticized works he’s done.
Despite its incoherent editing and overall dubiousness, 13 Hours reveals Bay in relatively more mature form than ever. It isn’t, contrary to the assurances of its liberal stars trying to avoid copping to making a conservative film, “apolitical,” but for the most part it aspires to the kind of fatalistic respect of Saving Private Ryan. Like that film, it cannot reconcile its tendency toward spectacle with its desire to vent outrage over asking men to die for a principle whose honor is lessened by its codification in military order.
But there’s something truly bracing, both within the context of Bay’s filmography and Hollywood’s general dramatization of the War on Terror, about a coda that returns to fields of dead Libyan insurgents as their mothers and wives wail over their corpses and the erstwhile stone-faced leader (Andrei Claude) looks on with silent regret at the price paid for nothing. It’s perhaps the only even-handed moment in Bay’s entire career, a fleeting acknowledgment that these men might have been as trapped by their own narrow, ingrained sense of duty as the six men who willingly entered an unwinnable fight to protect strangers.