Michael Bay dialling it back still leaves plenty of room for bombast, bombs and baloney. 13 Hours isn’t a shrill Fox News version of recent world events exactly, but it makes no bones about the failings of the Obama administration, intelligence gatherings screw-ups and funding cutbacks which led to the kind of minor-calamity-turned-into-a-political- hot-potato as what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on 11-12 September 2012. “Uncle Sam’s on a budget,” one grizzled CIA man pipes up, barely concealing his disgust. What’s really at stake isn’t national pride or sense of outrage regarding power vacuums and the rise of groups like ISIS emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring, but pencil-pushers in governmental departments dithering over what to do when an embassy is under siege and lives are at risk.
It is this key point Bay can’t stomach. At all. The US Army does not dick around when citizens are in clear and present danger – an entirely commendable policy and trait – but 13 Hours aggrandises the Benghazi embassy attack to the level of a gross national betrayal. Bay lacks the sophistication and talent to deal with the ins and outs what occurred. So, the director turned the material into a simplistic Alamo-style actioner, where six brave paramilitary heroes fend off faceless terrorists emerging in the night across a farmer’s field the group dub “zombieland” until the break of dawn and cavalry arrive to send them home. The template is pure John Ford, but 13 Hours’ pumped-up machismo and star-spangled tears make it peculiar and unedifying. Ford was a visionary artist pretending he wasn’t. Bay is nothing more than a great salesman. That is the mighty difference. The portrayal of paramilitary contractors as corn-fed Iowa boys longing for home and family is hard to take seriously. Nobody forced them to take the gig, Mr. Bay. They were there for a reason: a bumper pay day.
Along with numerous casually racist remarks – “They’re bad guys until their not” – the ‘secret soldiers’ air an infuriating disbelief at the world for not being so easily defined as they long for it to be. As the group mounts a rescue mission on the fallen embassy, they are beset on all sides by friends and foes who all look the same. The soldiers see the world in green night-vision but what they really want is dog black-and-white. If Bay’s depiction of the Benghazi incident is above his brain grade, he of course knows how to deliver meaty action scenes and thrilling moments. 13 Hours is a savage spectacle charged with plenty of tension, but unlike Saving Private Ryan, whose opening sequence registered the nerve-shredding terror of combat, Bay’s depiction of war is akin to an online gamer going for a kill streak on Call of Duty.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn