“13 Hours”, or, The Redemption Of Michael Bay

Whether or not Michael Bay deserves his reputation almost depends on whether or not his latest flick involves giant robots.  Honestly, if you take out that part of his filmography, he’s actually done quite well for himself.  If two of your films (The Rock and Armageddon) make the Criterion Collection, you can almost be forgiven for churning out a brain-dead stinker or two.  Or three.  Or four.

Maybe.

Nonetheless, his previous film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, was what it was.  Faithful long-time readers of yours truly may remember my review of that one–and a companion piece where I laid out my dismay at how far Bay seems to have fallen.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering if maybe, just maybe, Bay almost has an excuse.  In this case, making guaranteed blockbusters he doesn’t have any feeling whatsoever for, so as to gain the clout to make movies he’s truly passionate about.  SEE: Pain & Gain.  So…maybe it was almost worth it.

All I know is, 13 Hours is a masterpiece–whether he (and we) had to muscle his (and our) way through Transformers 4…or not.

It’s no secret that Michael Bay is a patriot, to the point where it’s a running gag that people have tried counting all American flags in each movie of his.  As such, we could safely anticipate that a film of his focusing on soldiers would have that certain something a Bay movie is so often accused of lacking: as the song goes, heart and soul.  Each of the heroes in this movie are lovingly crafted, and flesh-and-blood human beings–even an Arabic interpreter who’s given more than a few moments to shine.

Is this because 13 Hours is so heavily based on true real-life events that “based on” is stricken from the credits?  Is it because the real-life men who went through these event served as consultants for the movie?  Maybe.  All I know is, the one thing that I truly hated about Transformers 4–the annoying tendency to tease us with build-up to a good moment of character interaction, only to yank the rug out with a quick cut to something else–is thankfully gone…gone…GONE!

Thank heaven above, we actually hang out with these characters throughout the first half of the movie, as their camaraderie develops…and in lulls between the moments of violence, we have beautiful interactions between these heroes, the kinds of conversations we expect, want, and need to see among men who might die soon…and so, take advantage of whatever calms in the storm to reach out to one another as true friends.

It isn’t just the team who are fleshed out to be three-dimensional.  The ill-fated Ambassador Chris Stevens is shown as quite likable and charismatic…if a bit naïve, as far as the main boys are concerned.  He’s indicated to be, for all his peace-centered idealism, adequate with a gun when he needs to be; and he wastes no time in putting on a bulletproof vest when things go down.  It’s somewhat hard to watch his scenes, as he’s shown to be a pretty stand-up guy…who certainly doesn’t deserve to get caught up in what happens.

A female CIA operative is given her due–while certainly not hard on the eyes, she’s as far from Megan-Fox-in-a-Bay-movie (you know what I mean) as possible.  Even the section chief who tells our heroes to stand down is far from a villain–he’s shown to be every bit as frustrated as they are, at the lack of an order from on high.  He’s just a bit too “by-the-book” for his own good.  When the chips are down, though, he does what he needs to.

Now this leads me to the elephant in the room…so to speak: How does Bay handle the inherent politics of the incident?

Very carefully.  For all the angry outcries some people have engaged in (including a frankly disgraceful excuse for a movie critic on Roger Ebert’s otherwise typically excellent site, who spends his time in the comments sections of his reviews snidely belittling all who dare disagree with him like a stereotypical high-school wannabe “cool kid”), this movie never once makes any real references to Hillary and the State Department.  It’s not a political film–charged as it is with righteous anger at someone’s neglect to give the order for support that the embassy at Benghazi so desperately needed.

Nonetheless…there is meat to be found, if you’re paying very close attention–especially in a telling montage where the entire U.S. Military apparatus, from the base to the Pentagon, is ready to go and provide the support our heroes need….  They’re just waiting for the order.  Cue a voice announcing, “The President is about to be briefed.”  Nothing is spelled out on What Went Wrong…but the clues are there, if you look.

But as I said, you have to be paying close attention.  The moment is quick and understated.  But this is Michael Bay–and while most of the flaws we tend to link to him are thankfully absent…there is one issue: the frantic editing of the action scenes.  The camera is quick; the cuts between shots are unrelenting.  At times, moments in the climax come across as dizzying.  Nonetheless, Bay is sure to emphasize the pilots on an aircraft carrier, often cutting to them standing silently and solemnly by their planes…waiting….

(By the way, a priceless moment occurs in one of the calms in the middle of the storm…in which the heroes are bitterly amused at the media narrative that the attack came out of a protest over The Video.)

There are no answers spelled out in this movie.  But the audience is nonetheless filled with the million-dollar question: Why?

Why did the orders never come to allow the operatives to rush to the Embassy and save the day?  Why was the order never given for air support to even try to make it?  Why did the narrative come out that downplayed what happened, replacing it with the “Video protest” nonsense?

And amid the movie’s release: Why are the actual Secret Soldiers of Benghazi–again, the key consultants for the movie–being accused of lying on this?

All I know is…what I am about to say may sound clichéd, but nonetheless, I firmly believe it has to be said–for if the nation being stirred to righteous fury over the cover-up of a politically-motivated break-in at the Watergate hotel was “the right thing”…what about the en-masse downplay of a terrorist attack leading to the death of an American ambassador and three others?  Doesn’t the public have a Right To Know about that?

And so, dear readers, I will say it: Every American should see this movie.  The public does have a Right To Know…and to ask the question, “Why?”

Rated R for dark and gritty action and violence…and eventually, blood and gore–not gratuitous, but one moment really reminded me of Saving Private Ryan.  Also, there are moments of harsh language inevitable in a modern war film.

Movie Grade: A

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