Best known as the auteur behind crass, cartoonishly over-the-top action films and feature-length Hasbro commercials, director Michael Bay takes a stab at "serious" filmmaking with "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi." Adapted by Chuck Hogan from the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, the film dramatizes the 2012 attack on a United States embassy outpost and CIA base in Benghazi, Libya. Bay and his films have never been known for their subtlety, and the thought of the director taking on a subject like Benghazi is enough to make you cringe in anticipation of the director's worst impulses (xenophobia, racism, and sexism among them).
Though relatively restrained for the filmmaker, it's not surprising that "13 Hours" finds more success as just another crass, sometimes cartoonishly over-the-top action flick than as an insightful look into a tragic international incident.
Bay's film follows security contractor Jack Silva (John Krasinski of "The Office," adding a soulfulness to his character during the few moments he's actually allowed to act) as he reunites with friend and fellow Navy SEAL Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale) in Libya, where they'll be part of the CIA's Global Response Staff, tasked with providing protection for US diplomats and intelligence operatives. Moving on to the supposedly classified location of the CIA base, they join up with the rest of their team of badasses: Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini), Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Dave "Boon" Benton (David Denman).
Bay's simplistic characterization assigns only a few distinguishable traits to each man, and it took me a while to tell them apart (what can I say: apparently beefy, bearded white men all look the same to me). On the night of September 11, a large group of heavily-armed militants storm the poorly guarded compound where visiting ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) is residing. With no other forces in the area, the GRS team are forced to watch the attack from their station a mile down the road, until taking it upon themselves to intervene, against their commanding officers' orders.
The majority of "13 Hours" and its 144-minute running time is devoted almost exclusively to the siege. For better and for worse, Bay's instincts as a commercial filmmaker are as strong as ever, and the action is brutally intense. Bay's staging has always been chaotic, and for once it's appropriate, the men are never sure who is friend and who is foe, and Bay gets plenty of tension out of the indecisive beats that follow the radioed question, "Are we expecting friendlies?" This is Bay's most visually coherent film, most likely a credit to director of photography Dion Beebe, whose work with director Michael Mann in "Collateral" and "Miami Vice" has pushed the boundaries of digital photography. Beebe's overly-saturated, often handheld camerawork at times makes abstract art of the combat sequences.
Bay's assurances that he's left politics out entirely are a bit overstated, (the situation turned into a conservative rallying cry against the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- though neither are ever mentioned by name in the movie), still the majority of the finger-pointing is restricted to the broader bureaucratic failings of the government. These missteps are personified by the team's officious commanding officer (David Costabile), who keep our heroes from moving in earlier and potentially saving lives. For the most part, the film seeks only to honor the heroism of the brave men on the ground, though the tribute comes at the expense of all others: the sole Libyan character of even minor depth is a translator (Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi), while the only woman of note is a lobbyist, who gets to be the recipient of barked orders like "I need your eyes and ears but not your mouth!"
Bay makes some late-film attempts at even-handedness, ending the action by showing the countless bodies of dead Libyan insurgents and the women who mourn over their corpses. It's mostly too little, too late, but it's more nuanced than one might expect from the director who distilled the events at Pearl Harbor into a love triangle (Bay does recycle that film's memorable, though tactless, shot from the POV of a falling bomb). If it can be argued that "13 Hours" is making any point at all, it seems to be a message of non-involvement, put into words by Silva as he ruefully wonders if, should he die in combat, his children will recall that "he died in a place he didn't need to be, in a battle he didn't understand, in a country that meant nothing to him."