At this point, everybody knows what they’re getting with a Michael Bay film. Pretty action and the subtlety of a tank rolling down the road. His movies are big, loud and dumb. Looking at the box office totals for his movies, it seems people really like that about Bay. The director’s bombastic style may lead to huge grosses with his robot porn franchise Transformers, but with 13 Hours, Bay is tackling something far more complicated than a movie about robots that turn into cars and planes.
Based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff, 13 Hours tells the story of what happened on the ground in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012 from the point-of-view of six ex-military contractors who tried to rescue Ambassador Chris Stevens when his compound was overrun by terrorists. The aftermath and all of the politics surrounding the tragedy are wisely left out, though the film hints that aside from the terrorists who perpetrated the attack, no one person deserves the blame for what happened; it was just one of those things where everything went wrong.
13 Hours is both the best of Bay and the worst. Action has never been a weakness for the director, even if he relies too much on editing that forces the viewer to connect the dots over cohesion, and 13 Hours is some of Bay’s best work in that arena. As a bonus, since the actual events mainly take place at two compounds, geography isn’t an issue, a rarity for a Bay film.
After all these years, though, it’s obvious Bay will never grasp the art of subtlety. The attackers fire on an American flag, because they obviously hate America. Members of the security force mention Black Hawk Down by name, because they’re obviously in a similar situation. Hammer, nail, head. Like his other films, 13 Hours shows Bay has no clue how to shoot dialogue. If something in frame or the camera itself isn’t moving, the director’s ADHD kicks into high gear, a shocking revelation from one of the people who made whiplash editing popular in the ’90s. At least Bay tried to gloss over this weakness with superb casting, mainly his two leads, John Krasinski and James Badge Dale.
Playing two members of the squad that tried to rescue Ambassador Stevens, then had to hold off attackers at their own CIA-run compound for over six hours, Krasinski and Dale muscle through the awkward parts, lending a sense of realness that is missing from pretty much every Michael Bay film. Dale always has a certain machismo that’s gone woefully underused so far, but Krasinski is a long way from The Office’s Jim Halpert. Beefed up and hairy, he’s as welcome a surprise in 13 Hours as his action star wife, Emily Blunt, was in Edge of Tomorrow and Sicario.
13 Hours is the best film Bay has made since The Rock 20 years ago, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s almost impossible to watch 13 Hours and wonder how a more talented director would’ve handled a movie about the Benghazi attack, a tragedy with so many layers and angles, but instead we’re left with the Michael Bay version, which is little more than a poor man’s Black Hawk Down.