It’s no coincidence that 13 Hours is a January release; it is almost a year to the day since American Sniper hit wide release to critical acclaim and, more importantly, box office dominance. If Star Wars is going to be geek culture’s yearly December ritual, uncritical examinations of the War on Terror and its soldiers is going to be the January equivalent for that uncle who fills your Facebook feed with Trump 2016 posts. It seems only inevitable that the first to take a stab at this newfound cash cow would be Michael Bay, a director who has founded his career on military fetishism and unironically using explosions as a medium for emotional expression. And though Bay has broken his mold in the past (see: the surprisingly decent Pain and Gain), 13 Hours is definitely closer to the Transformers end of his filmographic spectrum, an overlong exercise in pyrotechnics without much emotional heft to carry it.
13 Hours is the story of the six CIA security contractors who defended the American diplomatic compound during the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. And, quite frankly, that’s about all there is to the film plot-wise. As usual with Michael Bay, characters are little more than stock archetypes at best, and the tedious thing about this film is that he opts to make every one of his protagonists the same archetype: a gritty man’s man who inexplicably is drawn back to warzones despite his love for his family, usually a wife and kids. And the film takes the first act time that it could have spent developing these characters as unique individuals and spend it on “tension-building” setpieces that don’t bear any readily apparent relationship to the events of the 9/11/2012 terrorist attack that acts as the bulk of the film.
But perhaps more egregious than the bland protagonists is that the film makes no effort to portray the enemy combatants as anything more than fodder to be taken down by righteous American bullets. In films not based on reality, it becomes a bit easier to portray villainous forces as simply evil, but even then you have to provide some measure of motivation to explain why your antagonist is acting as they are. 13 Hours doesn’t do that, and considering that this is a film based on real events in a real conflict, there needs to be a lot more effort than usual put into understanding the motivations of the terrorist threat. Without that necessary context, the film quickly devolves into a team of white dudes mowing down legions of ravenous brown people in the moral focus of an action blockbuster, where our protagonists are always right and the complex political struggles of the Middle East are reduced to gunfire and explosions.
This would perhaps have been more bearable if it weren’t for Bay’s horrible sense of cinematic vision in his action scenes. Primarily consisting of quickly cut shots with a camera that can never sit still, the action scenes feel cobbled together with whatever Bay haphazardly shot as he commanded explosion after shootout after car chase. Rarely do these scenes feel coherent, and I lost track of what was supposed to be happening so often that it all just became boring white noise. Perhaps visual chaos was what Bay was going for in these scenes, but other directors (see: Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg) have portrayed warzone chaos in a manner that still let us know what it was that we were looking at, and Bay rarely gives us that moment to comprehend.
As must be the usual disclaimer in reviews of war films, I don’t disrespect the courage or sacrifice of the men who fought and died in this battle. What I do object to, though, is a director using that courage as an excuse to make a tone deaf piece of action propaganda that reduces the reasons for their sacrifice to “because the brown people attacked us.” American Sniper took a lot of flak for its portrayal of the War on Terror, and personally I think some of those criticisms were exaggerated in light of the overwhelming audience response to the film. However, 13 Hours is the embodiment of those criticisms come to fruition, an unironic portrayal of American diplomacy through gunfire, and I really hope I am wrong in thinking that this film will be just as well received by American audiences as its spiritual predecessor. Please prove me wrong.