The phrase “a restrained Michael Bay movie” has the same inherent tension as, say, “a tasteful Donald Trump property” or “a platonic hug from William Jefferson Clinton.” Combine Michael Bay with a story about the most controversial overseas fiasco of the Obama era, and the possibility that America’s most shamelessly chest-pounding director might actually underplay things seems . . . well, about as plausible as the plot of the last few Transformers movies.
And yet: Here we have 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a war movie based on a (somewhat contested, naturally) memoir by a group of CIA security contractors who were on the ground in Benghazi during the events of September 11, 2012. It is, of course, still a Michael Bay movie, which means there will be oversaturated colors, plastic sheeting billowing in slow-motion breezes, big explosions, and even a mortar’s-eye view of the assault on the CIA safe house. (The Spy Who Came In from the Cold this is not.) Yet Bay, who can usually resist anything except temptation, actually keeps his wild story on a leash.
In part, of course, he’s restrained by the obligation to keep faith with his subjects and the facts — an obligation that did not exist in, say, Bad Boys 2. But there’s room for creative license even in a “based on true events” movie, and it would have been easy for him to synthesize an al-Qaeda Big Bad for his heroes to contend with, or to play up and embellish the election-year politics (a subject of great interest, obviously, to conservatives) behind the Obama administration’s slow and somewhat strange response to the disaster.
But instead, almost everything except for the immediacy of battle is understated and oblique. Maybe Bay feared having his story swamped by a partisan debate; if so, so much the better for his movie, because it pressed him toward a very un-Bay-like artistic subtlety. There’s a passing reference to the “it was a riot about a videotape” coverage and a few scenes of Pentagon officials discussing the situation, but mostly the fact that the people in charge failed the people on the ground is made clear through the invisibility of high politics, the absence of the tense war-room scenes and presidential briefings that you get in a typical action film. For 13 hours, the world outside Benghazi disappears — and that’s the point.
Likewise the depiction of the men who stormed our embassy and besieged the CIA base: There’s one who seems like the ringleader, but we learn exactly nothing about him; again, the movie stays with the perspective of our fighting men, for whom the main thing about the situation was its surreal unknowability, the constant circulation of armed men who might be foes, or friends, or just tourists along to see a burning embassy and have a little bit of fun.
The men are played by John Krasinski, his “Jim from The Office” past buried under facial hair and muscle, plus James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, and several other actors (including David Denman, Jim’s Office romantic rival!) whose names you wouldn’t recognize and whose characters blur into one another amid the firefights. They work for the film’s American bad guy, a pissy CIA station chief (David Costabile) who explains early on that their presence is unnecessary, and anyway they don’t have degrees from Yale and Harvard like his field agents so they should just keep out of everybody’s way. (I’m pretty sure no station chief has talked like this since 1955, but such are the ways of screenwriting.)
Of course he’s terribly wrong, just as he’s wrong to hold them back from rushing to the diplomatic compound when it’s first attacked, which means that when they do arrive, they’re too late to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher), and barely in time to save his contractor bodyguards. Though, in fairness, the station chief is right that his own compound could be the next target, because so it is, and half of the 13 hours is spent fending off a siege there.
That siege is the only action in the movie that’s really intelligible; the fighting at the diplomatic compound is just a chaos of men in beards with guns yelling and running, which probably captures the real feel of it but leaves the audience somewhat adrift. The personal stuff, meanwhile — Krasinski’s got a wife who doesn’t understand why he can’t come home, etc. — is just pro forma, a set of predictable beats and heartstrings that you’ve heard plucked before.
Yet the movie has an undeniable power, and its portrait of the essential futility of our Libyan intervention carries a political message that transcends the politics of Hillary. Bay-style sound and fury and all, 13 Hours fits in well alongside American Sniper and Lone Survivor — in a triptych of movies about heroes forged in wars gone sour, and soldiers worthier than the strategies for which they died.