Embellished "13 Hours" Finds Michael Bay In Fine Form

Master of the moving image or a pox on cinema? Director Michael Bay – the original internet punching bag – is back with war film “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi” to confuse his legacy even further.

“13 Hours” portends to tell the story of the infamous 2012 terrorist attack on an American compound in Libya as apolitically as possible. With “Benghazi” an inescapable buzzword in the ongoing 2016 Presidential primaries, the Paramount Pictures release had little choice but to feign non-partisanism – at least in its marketing campaign.

The movie fails that test, of course, assembling multiple instances of factually-challenged political grandstanding (even if no politicians are mentioned by name). Assertions that American air support was purposefully withheld have been proven dubious at best.

But beneath the picture’s hawkish shell is a gripping story of six CIA security contractors caught in the crossfire of a particularly muddled conflict. In fact, the movie nails the one thing that so many in the genre get wrong: the fog of war.

Confusion abounds as security team members Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski) and Rone Woods (James Badge Dale) scramble to fight off dozens with their half dozen. As they barrel through the streets of Benghazi to reach endangered Ambassador Chris Stevens, their enemy is as unclear as the air around them. Thick clouds of expended gunpowder blur the line between allies and enemies; hope for outside assistance dwindles.

As non-military contractors, the voluntary valor of Da Silva and company is rendered all the more astounding (undoubtedly aided by Bay’s signature visual pomp), culminating in a deadly standoff in which several Americans would die.

The first hour’s herky-jerky pacing is a problem, though. Chuck Hogan’s bare bones screenplay does little to characterize Da Silva, Woods, and the rest of their team, hitting familiar “family men on a mission” story beats that recall both Bay’s superior “Armageddon” and inferior “Pearl Harbor.” The characters as written are unworthy of the talented cast, including notable TV actors Pablo Schreiber (“Orange Is The New Black”), David Costabile (“Breaking Bad”), and Krasinski’s former “Office” co-star David Denman.

Costabile’s character – CIA base chief – is particularly awkward. He’s the story’s token American villain, repeatedly making terrible, nonsensical decisions that apparently never happened in real life. The character’s ultimate fate feels like a punchline to a joke that was never set up.

But once the main attack begins, Bay is firmly in his element and not beholden to the kind of weak comedy that marred his “Transformers” films (even though there are a few too many soft one-liners).

The car chase that marks the movie’s halfway point is as intense a car chase as the filmmaker has ever staged (and he’s staged a few doozies). Moreover, Dion Beebe’s reliable cinematography is a good fit, keeping in line with the seriousness of the material. The editing is similarly controlled.

In relation to recent January war pics, “13 Hours” is more resonant that Bay disciple Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” and better made than Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” David Ayer’s semi-recent “Fury” stands above all, but Bay’s entry is no slouch, confidently telling a mostly true story in a visually appealing, frequently suspenseful manner.

It seems unlikely to join the director’s “The Rock” and “Armageddon” as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, but it’s upper echelon Bay, echoing his talents loudly enough for all to hear. Including his noisiest detractors.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: January 15, 2016
Studio: Paramount Picture
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriter: Chuck Hogan
Starring: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, David Costabile
MPAA Rating: R (for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language)