’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’
Director: Michael Bay
Stars: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale
1 Globe (out of 5)
Michael Bay heard about the Battle of Benghazi and he thought it would make a great Michael Bay movie. And so it has. “13 Hours” isn’t about the four Americans who died; it’s about the six awesome, muscular he-men who bagged about 100 scary foreigners. It’s “America, F— Yeah!” writ large and with as many fiery booms as one of Bay’s “Transformers” entries. It’s a director with unexamined issues around sexism, racism, xenophobia and gay panic driving like “Mad Max”’s Furiosa into a powder keg situation. We don’t mean the Benghazi blame game itself, which Bay handles but briefly and passive-aggressively. It’s about how to portray a real-life tragedy without turning it into another explode-y action blockbuster.
Would it be a Bay movie if he didn’t fail miserably? Or if he never cared about niceties in the first place? “13 Hours” hitches its sails to the six macho CIA security contractors who improbably, heroically and tirelessly saved the day when Libyan attackers laid siege upon two separate American compounds. They’re a motley crew engaged in a beard-off so intense it’s sometimes difficult to tell which is which. At least Bay was wise to cast John Krasinski as the sorta-lead, Jack Da Silva. He brings genuine soulfulness to a character who does little but run and shoot things. The rest are interchangeable Men, prone to jokes about football and spooning, sometimes in the middle of intense, muddled mayhem. One of them (James Badge Dale) scores the Michael Bay-iest line in film history: “Payback’s a bitch, and her stripper name is karma.”
“13 Hours” peaks early with that line, but there’s plenty more offenses to come. The locals are all filmed like zombies — frightening Others shooting and screaming sans subtitles. (You could make the argument that that’s on purpose, as part of our hero’s fear is not knowing which Libyans are “friendlies” or baddies. But Bay has a terrible xenophobic track record, and he even shoots innocent Muslims praying as though it was a horror film.) The only prominent female character (played by Alexia Barlier) is at one point told — by one of our heroes, no less — to shut up and put on her head scarf, just like all the other oppressed women in the region. An unfailing leerer of comely female flesh (and male flesh, at least when it’s dudes flexing their pecs), Bay is at sea in a deserted hellscape, forced to settle for slipping in cutaways of hotcha stewardesses into an otherwise somber scene.
To watch a Michael Bay film is to enter a hyper-macho headspace, and a worldview divided into swaggering dick badasses and the effete wimps who try to hold them back. In “13 Hours” the villain isn’t Hillary Clinton or even Obama or even, really, the faceless, anonymous Islamist militants who swarm upon our innocent but capable soldiers. It’s David Costabile’s “The Chief,” the stickler who won’t let Jack and company take out the enemy before they grow stronger.
Bay can technically tell you “13 Hours” is “apolitical” and “just the facts, ma’am,” but The Chief stands in for all the governmental tools who try to stand in the way of manly might. He’s in the same class as Hillary, and the audience is encouraged to cheer as he’s dressed down by our heroes, with lines like, “You’re in my world now!” Bay can also tell you that his film is “nuanced,” because it concludes with a single, short scene of women wailing over the untold dead militants, plus a blink-and-miss shot of a Libyan teen holding up a sign informing us that not all Middle Easterners are bad. (The bottom of the sign is even cut off, which shows you how much he cares.)
But such overtures are too little too late, and insincere besides. The same goes for a very brief bit of respite when our soldiers talk about how they’re addicted to war, how what they’re fighting for is cosmically pointless. “Downtime is the worst,” Jack says, and Bay surely agrees. He likes when things are blowed up real good, and most of “13 Hours” is a rollicking roid-fest, complete with a rad shot following a bomb as its drops — exactly like the one in “Pearl Harbor,” the last time he trivialized real tragedies for thrills. The makers of the best war films — John Ford, Samuel Fuller — made war complex, even as they sided with the troops. Bay just wants to get you off.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge