With 13 Hours, Michael Bay doesn’t so much wear his political heart on his sleeve as use it as a club to beat his audience into submission. His dramatic retelling of the September 2012 terrorist attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, Libya – during which two members of a covert security team lost their lives along with American ambassador Christopher Stephens – plays like an extended Republican party political broadcast, complete with relentless hand held camera carnage and beating jungle drum soundtrack.
During the 45 minutes of endless set-up, we see security contractor Jack Silva (John Krasinski) join old friend Rone (James Badge Dale) and a team of fellow ex-army men at a secret CIA compound in the middle of the ruined city. They are, as we are repeatedly reminded by means of schmaltzy flashbacks and extended montages of Skype calls home, normal family men, risking it all to bring democracy and prosperity to a Libyan society that is on its knees after the overthrow and death of former Prime Minister Colonel Gadaffi.
Instead of attempting to really mine the fascinating depths of the attack – which was the subject of an investigation after Republicans falsely accused President Obama of failing to act – Bay has ignored such complications and approached the film in exactly the same way as every other in his cannon, eschewing narrative nuance for shaky camera work, hokey slow motion, explosive effects and an overpowering soundtrack. In other words, its total Bayhem.
Similarly, in adapting the novel by Mitchell Zuckoff, screenwriter Chuck Hogan has reduced these soldiers to cliched war machines who spout lines like ‘We’re going to unleash hell’ and ‘As long as I’m doing the right thing, God will protect me’. While there’s no doubt that machismo runs high in such extreme situations, these men are so blunt-edged that it sounds like contrived political posturing. A mid-battle rooftop scene between Jack and Rone about the importance of family touches briefly on the personal toll of a life lived in a torrent of violence, as do the inevitable casualties, but any such depth of feeling is soon drowned out in a hail of bullets.
Unsurprisingly, the real-life women involved in this situation are all but ignored. Only one has a small speaking role, Alexia Barlier’s agent Sona Jillani, and she is introduced as a ‘spicy bitch’, told repeatedly to shut up because, as one soldier eloquently puts it, ‘I need your eyes and your ears, not your mouth’ and, at one point, falls down some steps as she delivers refreshments to the men doing the real work, just to really highlight her ineptitude. While war stories are, traditionally, a masculine domain, such unbridled misogyny is entirely unforgivable.
The same can be said for its rampaging racism. While Bay lingers long on American suffering – the soldiers risking their lives on the roof, the CIA operatives cowering in the basement – he plays fast and loose in depicting the huge Libyan loss of life. Indeed, while the characterisation on the US-side may be ham-fisted, it is absolutely non-existent elsewhere. ‘They are all bad guys until they’re not’, intones a soldier – one of many clangers that sound like they have been ripped straight out of a Donald Trump’s campaign speech – and the film views any non-American man, woman or child, with absolute suspicion. There is a brief scene in which Libyan women are seen mourning their losses, although this is almost immediately replaced by a lingering shot of a ruined American flag surrounded by debris. Because, you know, priorities.
There’s absolutely no doubt that, like their colleagues across the globe, men and women who spend their days on the frontlines of conflict deserve universal respect and admiration. Reducing such a complicated and politically-nuanced situation to jingoistic actioner is surely not any way to honour their selfless endeavours. Election year fearmongering masquerading as cinema, 13 Hours does a disservice both to its fantastic cast and the men they are portraying.
UK release: January 29, 2016
An edited version of this review was originally published by The List