13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is like a contemporary video game. Rather than diving right into first-person shooter action, it takes time to develop its characters and atmosphere. Like Call of Duty, it subverts expectations early on with its dedication to storytelling and building a world before blowing it to bits. But like many video games, its story eventually gets lost in a hail of gunfire. That would be okay if the action were more harrowing. However, like most Michael Bay movies, it grows a bit hazy and shallow. Having said that, this is one of his better films — mostly because the story is grounded in reality.
The film revolves around the Islamic militant attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which erupted on the evening of the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The story focuses on the small team of CIA security contractors that defended the American diplomatic outpost and nearby CIA compound.
As he always does, Bay hovers over the hellfire, taking a God’s-eye view of destruction. He even recreates his signature shot from Pearl Harbor, following a warhead as it descends to the earth. For the most part, the action scenes are more vivid than most of the explosive set-pieces in Bay’s films. Unlike many of his chaotic messes, this one carries some substantial emotional weight.
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John Krasinski delivers a tender performance as Jack Da Silva, the newbie on the CIA security team. He embodies the vulnerability of post-9/11 America, barely hiding fear behind bravado. Krasinski is the beating heart of the film. His scenes with fellow soldier Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) are quietly devastating. A particularly poignant moment finds Jack venting to Tyrone and questioning his fate — “What are my girls going to say about me? That I died in a place I didn’t need to be?” he wonders.
The film is most effective in these quiet, intimate moments. But it’s a Michael Bay movie, which means it doesn’t spend too much time lingering in the calm before the storm. While the central attack is often clearer and more chilling than most of Bay’s work, it grows quite tiresome. Of course, it feels insensitive to say that about action scenes rooted in reality, but this is the kind of film that should leave viewers on edge. 13 Hours is a dizzying spectacle of destruction that’s often more tiring than troubling.
This is a powerful war drama wrapped in popcorn fare. It often rises above expectations, but it ultimately floats back down into Bay’s shallow, repetitive territory. 13 Hours will shake you up, but it won’t stay with you like a great war film should.