Past the Popcorn: Michael Bay Manages a Down-to-Earth 13 Hours

by Jeff Walls

Michael Bay certainly has a talent for directing action. But his movies have always been more popcorn-flavored, so taking on a sensitive subject like Benghazi seems like a risky move.  The director has tackled real-life stories before with both Pearl Harbor and Pain & GainThe latter was a story about dumb criminals that didn’t need to be taken too seriously, but Pearl Harbor certainly covered an event that required a level of respect for the events that took place… and Bay failed to deliver on that.  Fortunately, with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the director does manage to tell an intense action thriller while giving the real-life persons involved the respect they deserve.

The movie focuses on the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Diplomatic Mission, but opens five weeks earlier to introduce us to our main characters, the secret soldiers of the title.  Contracted by the CIA, these men are former Army Rangers and Navy SEALs hired to protect those who work out of the covert base located about a mile away from the Diplomatic Mission.  We spend a little bit of time getting to know something about these characters before the movie skips forward to the morning of the attack.

13-hours-insetThe attack began at the Mission complex where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was staying.  There was very little security stationed at the complex and the CIA contractors led by Tyrone Woods were anxious to help, but they were held back by the CIA’s station chief.  Their desire to save lives soon won out over their need to follow orders, but they were too late to be of much help.  Once they returned to their own base, they found that their bad night was about to get worse as gunmen numbering in the hundreds began approaching the base.

For the most part, Bay keeps the politics out of the movie.  There are a couple of pieces of dialogue that make direct references to issues that came out during and after the attack, but mostly the movie focuses on these men who are there to put their lives on the line to save others.

The movie follows these characters as they are thrown into intense situations that would make most of us fold up into the fetal position in an instant.  Bullets are flying every which way and explosions are going off all around, while the soldiers must determine whether the locals running around them are friend or foe.  That last part may be the craziest because often all they can do is ask and trust that when someone says they are friendly, they won’t shoot as soon as they turn their backs to them.

Bay manages to restrain himself when it comes to the action, taking a less-is-more approach instead of his usual go-big-or-go-bigger philosophy.  There is a brief two or three minute stretch in the final act in which I guess he couldn’t contain himself any more—you’ll know it when you see it—but for the most part the violence and action, from an outsider’s perspective anyway, feels authentic and realistic.  As an audience, we feel as if we are thrown right into the middle of the chaos and that makes us respect these men and appreciate what they do all the more.

The cast, led by James Badge Dale and, in an inspired piece of against-type casting, John Krasinski, is at the center of this movie’s success.  Apart they each demonstrate a good balance between tough-as-nails soldiers and family men who hope to return safely to their wives and children, while together they demonstrate a bond of brothers that helps them against the overwhelming odds they come to face.

There is an action scene in the movie’s opening act that feels superfluous and add tos the movie’s already long runtime, but even though the movie feels lengthy, it isnever boring.  It is nice to see an over-the-top director like Michael Bay can still pull off something a little more down-to-earth.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the Century Federal Way, and Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? It’s reportedly gonna happen! Until then, eat local before you go!

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