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Sunday, January 24, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Review

Bay tries, but it feels like Hours

It's tricky to talk about director Michael Bay. He is like the Adam Sandler of filmmakers - if he puts out a movie, critics sharpen their daggers and get ready to attack. His "Transformers" movies are soulless spectacles that are too long and too self-indulgent to be anything enjoyable (yes, I know box office receipts beg to differ but I stand by this statement).

With "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," Bay tries to do something he hasn't done in a long time: tell a story. It's a comparatively restrained effort on Bay's part (don't worry, there is plenty of action) and I have warring and contradicting feelings on. He starts the movie slow, 

building tension in Benghazi but then throws us into a night filled with gunfire and explosions. It's thrilling and exciting - and actually coherent to watch most of the time - but after a while feels numbing and repetitive. Contradictions, I tell ya.

Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL, is sent to Libya to help guard a top-secret CIA location. He meets with former Navy pal, Rone (James Badge Dale). They aren't together very long before guns are drawn and it becomes clear they aren't really welcomed in Benghazi, where guns and grenades are sold on the street like fresh produce at a farmer's market.     

Rone takes Jack back to the compound to meet the rest of the team: Tanto (Pablo Schreiber), Boon (David Denman), Tig (Dominic Fumusa) and Oz (Max Martini). They all answer to a CIA chief named Bob (David Constabile), who never hesitates to put these guys in their place. They leave their families behind to be stationed in Libya only to be reductively referred to as "hired help" by Bob.

It's not long before things get real ugly. US Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives in Benghazi and is residing at a supposedly safe palatial estate. Quickly, the estate is under attack and his security team is outnumbered. Rone urges Bob to let the men assist the security team to make sure Ambassador Stevens remains safe but Bob is too by-the-books and tells him to stand down. The gunfire becomes louder and the explosions become more frequent that Rone stages a coup against Bob and rallies the entire team to go into combat. He assures them they don't have to do this because this isn't why they're here but this is what these men do without question.

What ensues is a long night of combat, which from a purely filmmaking standpoint is thrilling for some time. The Benghazi sky lights up with gunfire like fireworks on the Fourth of July. But after a while, it seems like Bay and screenwriter Chuck Hogan really want us to feel the hours these men fought. About half-way through the night, the action goes from thrilling to watch to something that needs to be endured until the film is over.

Again, a semblance of credit is due to Bay for trying to tell a story, even as simplistic as it is presented. He draws a line in the sand with the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other. There isn't much depth to the story - even when the screenplay shoehorns in familial pathos - which holds back the film from being a stronger one. We only really get to know Jack and Rone and the other guys seem to be extras in the background. Each one of them deserves to have their story told.

"13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" isn't about rah-rah hero worship. It's an important story that needs to be told about six men who refused to sit back and watch such carnage unfold. I couldn't help but wonder what a stronger filmmaker like Kathryn Bigelow would have done with this material and the questions that would be asked and the dialogs started after her film.

But we have Bay at the helm and I'm just thankful none of the tanks or jeeps talked and smashed against each other on the streets of Benghazi. It's a small victory for the filmmaker and us as his audience.

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