Since Armageddon and the Box-Office-Behemoth of Transformers, even the most casual cinema-goer knows what to expect from Michael Bay. The tropes of his movies are so well established now, it's even coined the term "Bayhem." So when the news came that the man who brought us Bad Boys was going to leave Cybertron and get gritty with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the collective surprise of cinephiles and Hollywood reporters was palpable. Even if it was about bad ass military contractors firing guns, how interesting would it be to drop Bay-meister into the narrative of a political hot potato like Libya, with a relatively low budget (for Mike anyways) of $50 million?
Very interesting, would be the answer.
The movie begins in the socio-political chaos after Gaddafi is "overthrown". From the opening we see a very restrained Bay, trying his damndest to not go full "Bayhem". There's slow introductions, the distinct lack of revolving shots from the ground and an undercurrent of anxiety. It's a deft intro that sets up just how much danger we're in and the pervasive peril that comes with it.
13 Hours also has the ingredients of a grunt's-eye-view of conflicts. The bureaucracy of government and intelligence that get in the way of getting the job done right. The tech speak and reeling off gun model numbers like Heisenberg does the periodic table occasionally feels like it's proving something - sure, this is how these guys speak, but those of us audience members that didn't do national service may be left perturbed. These guys are the real deal and you better get on board. It doesn't quite wash. Bay & Co do enough to set up the premise for the inevitable show down, but the first act seems ultimately bland and devoid of any distinctive characters. There's banter between them, mentions of skillsets and a guy who seems to enjoy wiping his wiener on things, but it's not quite enough to flesh them into characters you will want to survive what's coming.
Then it happens. After nearly 45 mins of running time and some indecision from the CIA stooge running the compound, we get to load up, get sweaty and save the Ambassador. It's enough of a release you almost don't notice, but it is there. A cheeky bit of Bayhem just snuck in. A dolly shot moves in so close it almost boops his nose, as John Krasinski delivers a somewhat heroic line. Then you'll notice that as night has fallen, so too has the trademarked orange/blue light that contrasts Transformers night scenes.
This may seem like a minor detail, but it's important to remember that these tropes have nestled themselves quite comfortably into summertime tent pole flicks. Whereas in a film that sets its gritty stall out to start and seems intent on "keeping things real," these flourishes undermine honest beats. Just before the militia take the compound, each of the protagonists we're following call their loved ones. What should be an earnest pull at the heart strings becomes a twee telegraphing of just what's to lose for all our boys. It also nearly derails what should be a sudden "bang!" of the attack on the ambassador.
There's still lots that's well executed. Bay completely nails the paranoia and confusion at the time. As our guys navigate their way to the compound it's hard to tell who's an ally and who is enemy. There's also a car chase sequence that'll be shadowed by the likes of the go-to Ronin, but is so fraught with danger you'll be sweating in your seat. Second-hand RPGs bounce without detonating and cause even more threat. It all helps to pile on the pandemonium.
This is punctuated, however, with cut-and-paste war movie moments. People get cut in half by truck-mounted artillery. A touch of Private Ryan here, Platoon there. The untrained and almost faceless brigade that are skilled enough that we should worry, but not so battle-hardened that they could overcome the mite of true-blue american shock and awe.
Once the fight falls back to the CIA compound the momentum seems to slow. Again there are genuine moments of unease and you will feel involved, but these are let down by contrivances that may as well come with flashing, on-screen text.
It's a shame, as in amongst this (apparently) true story is what could be a real humdinger to rival the likes of Three Kings. Instead is the phony bare bones that should have you a lot more involved.
The last thing you want is to be apathetic to our fellow mans plight to fight for their lives against insurmountable forces, but the pieces of this war-torn jigsaw wont fit into place. Despite the best efforts of Krasinski, a phone call home in the final moments of the film should wrench your gut, but instead passes by. We survey the devastation of the CIA compound the next morning and despite the explosive turmoil evidenced all around we, somehow, find our way to an american flag floating in a pool. It wreaks of forced patriotism or contrived honour. It rips you out of the moment and makes you wonder whether Mike can actually help himself.
3* - Bay Hawk Down