Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

I did not expect to like this movie at all, quite the opposite in fact. When I heard Michael Bay was set to direct a movie about the Benghazi attacks, I was certain it would turn out to be a tasteless exploitation of the tragic events that occurred on September 11. 2012, and this notion was only reinforced when Bay said “it avoids the politics”. So, imagine my surprise when it wasn’t a complete and utter mess.

The Benghazi attacks, and the U.S. diplomacy work in the region, was a mess of course; a chaotic, no-holds-barred confrontation between Islamic militants and the U.S. forces stationed at a secret CIA annex right around the corner of the American embassy. I won’t say too much more on the event, for those who may have missed it in the news, but I think it’s safe to say it truly was a political mess.

There is of course “politics” in this movie, and while Bay obviously opts for spectacle, patriotism and popcorn over insight and political commentary, the movie is surprisingly sympathetic and aware of its context in some respects – as aware as one can hope for coming from a director whose biggest accolades is four Transformers movies – and there are moments in this that are quite decent. The paranoia, uncertainty and overall chaos that occurred is presented really well; moments were our “Secret Soldiers” run into local forces without a clue whether they’re friends or foes makes for tense and memorable scenes in a swarm of ludicrous action. This isn’t unique to 13 Hours, of course, but unlike a lot of other mainstream Hollywood-productions, it doesn’t lean on xenophobic and racist language – filmic or otherwise – to convey these feelings. It’s kinda sad, however, that this is noteworthy and not the norm. 

The performances are also fairly decent, with John Krasinski and Pablo Schreiber being the two stand-outs. They don’t have much to work with, however, as the screenplay is drenched in American patriotism and superiority, clichéd emotional punches, and horrendously poor dialogue. This also carries over to Bay’s directorial compositions, with heavy-handed symbolisms of raw American power and strength, lazy and at times insensitive camera-acrobatics – one of which is taken straight from Pearl Harbor – and an overall generic tone. It is painfully traditional for the most part; the shoot-outs loose their effect very fast; the explosions are so thundering that it’s impossible to take in; and the emotional and sentimental exposition is so clichéd and poorly written that it becomes more difficult to empathise and feel for these soldiers the more we see of their families and internal motivations. It’s sad that all of this fails when there are a few elements that work wonderfully well.

While I’m usually opposed to the idea of “turning ones brain off” for an action movie, 13 Hours is so kinetic in its audiovisual presentation, and so loud and messy in its action that it shuts it down for you. While that may be harmful, both as entertainment and on a sociopolitical level, it is undeniably easy to digest. Its few positives are so fresh that I hope more Hollywood-productions take note and learn from it. Just remember, “it avoids the politics” (it doesn’t), and there are no lesson here, nor much of any substance.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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