Friday, January 15, 2016

Zaki's Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Two days ago, I showed my Public Speaking class a video of Michael Bay attempting to deliver a speech at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show before a teleprompter fumble forced the director of Bad Boys and Armageddon to abandon the stage. Now, just to be clear, the point of my showing that vid wasn't to toss tomatoes at the man who's reaped box office bounties to the tune of billions of dollars as helmer of Paramount's long-running Transformers franchise. Rather, the goal was to show how anyone, no matter how successful, can be overcome by insecurity in an unfamiliar situation.

Anyway, immediately after that class (in a bit of timing that I assure you was entirely coincidental), I headed to a screening of Bay's latest opus, the "based on true events" political thriller 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. As I watched the film, adapting the bestseller by Mitchel Zuckoff, I couldn't help but think of that image of the director scampering off the stage at CES. Couldn't help but think of the insecurity underlying the bravado. And at that moment I was hit with a sudden moment of clarity. When you think about it, you have to figure it's not easy being Michael Bay.

That might sound ridiculous, but seriously, hear me out. Here he is, two decades deep into a career that long ago bestowed upon him the title of "Undisputed Master of Onscreen Disaster." He's one of the few directors whose name alone is a draw. His movies have grossed the GDP of several small countries. And yet he's still struggling to prove that he's more than just the guy who makes things go boom. In that sense, like Pain and Gain three years ago, 13 Hours bears all the marks of a director trying desperately to squeeze out of the "blockbuster" box he's been trapped in. 

With that in mind, I'm willing to give him credit for trying. Certainly as a purely visceral exercise, it is indeed effective. Bay has made a concerted effort to dial back some of his more obnoxious signature stylistic tics and instead focus on the characters, putting us in their shoes as they fight for their lives during the tragic events in 2012 that saw a United States embassy laid siege in Libya and and an American ambassador killed. In this instance, the story (as adapted by Chuck Hogan) is told from the perspective of the contractors who served as secret muscle for the CIA while conducting covert business in Benghazi. 

Our point-of-entry character for all of this is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who flies into Benghazi at the insistence of his friend and colleague Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), to act as security in the wake of Muammar Gaddaffi's death and the subsequent unrest in the country. Of course, history tells us how that unrest erupted on September 11, 2012, becoming a partisan football that even now serves as a dog whistle for many. 13 Hours isn't particularly interested in settling any political scores for either side of the divide, which is admirable in its own way. Instead, the focus is on the men who did the fighting and dying. Warrior poets who read Joseph Campbell when they're not pulling granite blocks and showing off their pecs.

That's all well and good, but unfortunately it also isn't interested in lending the underlying and overarching events leading up to and out of the attack much clarity either. Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives in Benghazi, proclaiming his desire to be housed in the embassy rather than more secure quarters. Given that this is all recent history, we in the audience get to "tsk, tsk" with the benefit of hindsight as the seconds tick down to the inevitable, the point repeatedly driven home that only Woods, Silva, and their fellow contractors could see the danger. If only the bureaucrats would have stepped aside and let the real men make the decisions, the film tells us, tragedy could have been prevented.

And, y'know, maybe it could have. That's the great unknown. Nonetheless, it's easy to see exactly why this project appealed to director Bay. It fits right in with his career-long arc highlighting everymen, the working stiffs who actually do the grunt work as opposed to the folks pushing papers. As such, once the thirteen hours of the title begin to unfold (in what honestly feels like an interminable real time slog), we certainly feel the weight of the struggle, but we lose the context necessary to understand the whys-and-wherefores behind the attack itself. Why did it happen? Who did it? Why did they do it. We don't get any of that.

Instead, what we do get is hordes of encroaching brown people, whose numbers don't seem to diminish no matter how many bullets are unloaded into them. It all feels like something out of The Walking Dead. (The characters even call the field of battle "Zombieland," for goodness sake.) How do we tell the good guys from the bad? Well, per one of our heroes, we don't. We assume they're all bad. And while that mentality, as problematic as it is, is at least somewhat understandable from the perspective of someone who's under fire, their life on the line, there's no attempt to contextualize such observations for the audience that will hear them and learn the exact wrong lesson.

As I said in my review of American Sniper a year ago (and one presumes Paramount is releasing this at the same time of year in hopes of capturing some of the mojo that turned that flick into the biggest hit of director Clint Eastwood's career), film is a reductive medium. Our point-of-view is chosen for us by the makers. It's easy to see why the POV in 13 Hours is what it is, but the consequence is that it leaves us with a movie that -- despite strong performances from the cast (Krasinski and Dale are MVPs) and an earnest attempt by its director to expand the boundaries of his oeuvre -- feels half-baked and unfulfilling. C-

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