Believe it or not, despite forging a career making movies where countless special forces teams made up of the military and law enforcement wage war on such enemies as transforming robots, domestic terrorists and *checks notes* er… Cuba (thanks a lot Bad Boys II), 13 Hours is technically the first, straight military movie Michael Bay has made. I know, right – I had to double check that too, but Pearl Harbour aside (more of a awful romance movie with with gargantuan war sequences chucked in), it wasn’t until 2016 when the master of Bayhem took on a story free of sci-fi and action comedy trappings.
The story he chose was Mitchell Zuckoff’s 13 Hours, a biographical account of events that occured in Benghazi in the wake of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 that saw six members of an ANNEX security team have to defend an American diplomatic compound from a massive siege from gun waving militants. Eyeballs where set to roll at the thought of Bay preparing to unleash his signature tics of dialogue drowning explosions and un-ironic flag waving – and yet is seemed that old immolatin’ Mike might actually have some subtlety in him after all. I mean not much. But some.
Former Navy SEAL Jack Silva arrives at his new posting as part of a team of private military contractors hired to protect a top secret CIA base located not far from a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Considering that in 2012, Benghazi was named one of the most dangerous place in the world and all the other countries have pulled all of their diplomatic offices out in fear of attacks by militant forces, tensions are running high, but Jack settles down quickly with the group thanks to fellow SEAL and good buddy, Tyrone Woods. The six members of the team regularly butt heads with CIA Chief of Station (dubbed “Bob”) who has issues with their conduct and their interaction with civilians as any military presence might give them all away – but issues go way beyond that when militants finally decide to target the diplomatic compound after the arrival of the US ambassador with predictably explosive results.
Eager to head over and provide aid, the squad are frustrated by a delayed pre-order from “Bob” but when they finally wade into the ongoing fire-fight they find that matter are far more lethally complex than they thought. For one thing, February 17 (aka.the good Lybian militia) is completely indistinguishable from the people who want to kill them, especially well the bullets start flying and after they fall back to their base, it becomes ground zero for a huge assault. With any form of back up or exfil a long, long way away, Jack, Tyrone and the rest of the team have to hold off countless enemies and a lot of RPGs all night long until help arrives or a plan is formed to get everyone out.
Michael Bay’s notorious love of cinematic excess, big explosions and even bigger run times mean he hasn’t made a tight movie since 1996’s The Rock (still arguably his best film) and yet 13 Hours sees the typically combustible director admirably on his best behavior. Yes, it seems that even Bay has finally learned his lesson that when dealing with military events that actually happened, he should probably reign in the urge to stuff his movie with twirling, near incomprehensible camera work and goofy, insensitive characters that teeter on the border of offensive. As a result, we finally have a movie that still scratches that prevailing itch of mountainous explosions and military worship, but for once, Bay doesn’t go straight for the lowest common denominator and actually turns in a movie that still caters for his lust for destruction while actually something of a dignified experience.
Probably a sizable factor to aiding this is the rather surprising cast of John Krasinski as Jack Silva, a decision that doesn’t seem all that strange now he’s been Jack Ryan, the director of both A Quiet Place movies and a pseudo member of the Fantasic Four, but at the time it seemed unthinkable that Jim from the US Office could pull a Chris Pratt and emerge on film as a convincing soldier. Krasinski, while still required to deliver grimly humorous one liners at opportune moments, brings a quiet dignity to proceedings you don’t usually get from a Michael Bay leading man, especially after three movies of Shia Labeouf’s screaming man-child schtick in the Transformers movies. Elsewhere, the similarly reliable James Badge Dale also provide the same brand of stoic heroism while Pablo Schreiber (Pornstache from Orange Is The New Black) give a more typically chaotic performance but you honestly feel these guys are a legitimate unit.
However, there’s an argument to be made that they possibly did too good a job as when the shit hits the fan and rocket propelled grenades start whooshing by like suicidal pigeons stuffed with C-4, their near identical beards and blood combo makes it almost impossible to tell them apart – an issue the plagued Ridley Scott’s incredibly similar Black Hawk Down (which one character actually name drops). Often adding to the confusion is that sometimes, Bay’s exuberance gets the best of him as he simply fills the screen with sparks and debris (he’s only human, people) which often confuses matters more, but then you could argue that a desperate firefight is supposed to be messy and confusing and taken in that respect, but surely the main issue is the weighty length of the piece, brought on by the fact that Bay is adamant that he starts the story early enough to justify not only stretching out the events of the night, but also the preceding twenty four hours which arguably makes the film easily easily an exhausting 20 minutes too long. But again, Bay’s infamous habits manage to lean into the fact that, again, it’s supposed to be exhausting and he does manage to break up the tension with frequent oddball dialogue and his trademark brand of surreal detail that drops otherwise banal happenstances into high pressure situations. Krasinski loses a contact lens on the way to a firefight, Lybians casually watch soccer on TV in their garages while heavily armed Americans jog by and Bay even pinches his own shot from Pearl Harbour by having the camera follow a mortar on its trajectory from launch all the way down to it’s explosive, final destination.
Bay-haters will no doubt double-down on his famous foibles and cite the usual lack of balance between empathy for both American and Lybian combatants (An enemy taking a bullet between the eyes and then involuntarily firing an RPG at his own feet is filmed for dark laughs), but if we cheered Ridley Scott for doing the exact same thing for Black Hawk Down, why are we vilifing Bay for copying him?
Yes, Bay doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here (or even his own style) but he truly does deserve some sort of credit for making a film that is genuinely gripping, tense and surprisingly moving while still allowing him to enthusiastically detonate large parts of the set around his actors.