An American Ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya as a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
Michael Bay has taken a break from his busy Transformers schedule to concentrate on an adaptation of the book 13 Hours, by Mitchell Zuckoff, that depicts an attack which occurred on September 11, 2012, at the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Since 2009 Bay’s only other non-Transformers film was Pain & Gain, and he’s currently in pre-production on Transformers 5 so it’s a welcome stop to see him tackle some other subject. With that said 13 Hours isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for Bay, but it does serve as a timely reminder for everything that Bay is skilful at.
13 Hours takes the true story events of an attack against a US occupied compound in Benghazi and crafts it into a lengthy but compelling and intense film. One of the things that impressed me the most about this film is Bay’s patient approach to it, it’s well paced and takes its time to establish the tone and setting while articulating the circumstances around which some more subdued action sequences erupt. Bay exercises some uncharacteristic restraint in this film, and it lends itself to enhance the impact of sequences in the final act.
Plot wise it has a fairly narrow narrative, there’s a specific sequence of events which the film follows and it rarely detracts from this path. This is coupled in with some character driven elements which while necessary, tend to come off quite derivative.
There are a few other interesting elements explored, primarily around the organisational friction between the CIA/spy elements and the formal/ex-military squads, and it would have been nice if the film had done something more with the intelligence gathering thread underpinning the main combatant arc, but this is mostly left as a missed opportunity.
But where the film shines, it really does shine….. it takes that slow burn approach while still maintaining a good sense of urgency and intensity for long periods of time. The action isn’t overly sophisticated or extravagant which is a good thing, and it takes a grounded and gritty approach which heightens the tension.
Events escalate naturally and the overall set piece for the action is well utilised. With a tight, confined story in place Bay is free to lead the visual direction of the film and this really pays off, it’s an excellently shot film with some jaw dropping imagery throughout.
It’s unfortunately a fairly one-sided story that unfolds, and arguably the narrative is simply following the book, but despite that, it would have been interesting to explore the other side of the combat a bit further. There are a few moments where things stop to take a look at what else is going on but it tends to be fleeting at best.
The main cast here are all solid, without a lot of material underpinning them they have a good chemistry and a strong onscreen presence, John Krasinski, and Pablo Schreiber are highlights with both being highly effective at conveying the intensity and crippling stress of combat. The main cast all look the part though, there’s been a lot of attention given to ensuring they look like professional and experienced combatants which elevates the authenticity of the film.
Overall 13 Hours excels in what it sets out to achieve, I’d hoped it would have a grander scope and creatively it just decides not to go down certain avenues, but in terms of where Bay wanted to go with it, it’s an excellent endeavour and an overdue reminder that Bay is a talented filmmaker, even if he has been too distracted with sentient robots over the last nine years.
I’m giving 13 Hours – The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi 7 out of 10 stars, it’s in cinemas from Thursday, 25th February 2016.