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'13 Hours' Finds Fodder For Action, But Not Thought, In Recent History

John Krasinski plays Jack Silva in a scene from 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Christian Black/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures hide caption

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Christian Black/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

John Krasinski plays Jack Silva in a scene from 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

Christian Black/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

"Country's got to figure this [expletive] out, Amahl," growls a CIA security contractor to his Libyan translator on his way out of town in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay's account of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound. That's about the level of sophistication the film brings to the controversial incident, which cost the lives of four Americans and remains a touchstone for critics of the Obama administration. Insofar as a film about Benghazi can be apolitical, 13 Hours studiously avoids engaging in the contentious debate surrounding the attack, to the point where "Country's got to figure this [expletive] out" sounds as much like Bay's conclusion as the contractor's.

Of course, 13 Hours can't be apolitical: Those who feel diplomacy was a folly in post-Gadhafi Libya and consider the government's actions faulty and negligent will find their opinions validated by the film, if not exactly deepened by it. But Bay's real interest here, as in his other historical action picture, Pearl Harbor, is the grunt's-eye-view of war, which isn't as subject to partisanship. The "secret soldiers" of the title are the unsung heroes he's eager to champion, men who beat back a coordinated and relentless assault on two U.S. outposts and kept more Americans from losing their lives. This is his Black Hawk Down, a real-life shoot-'em-up about elite military operatives stranded in hostile territory, shredding wave after wave of faceless gunmen.

It's the faintest of praise to call 13 Hours one of Bay's best works, given a résumé dominated by Transformers movies, but his narrow perspective and fidelity to the timeline keeps most of his juvenile fetishes in check. (Suffice to say, Benghazi is woefully short on sports cars and derrières.) Working from Mitchell Zuckoff's book, the film stays close to the six interchangeable bearded warriors who, in this telling, spring into action when militants expose the woeful security around the U.S. diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA outpost.

Chief among those warriors is Jack (John Krasinski), a seasoned operator who's barely out of the airport before facing down his first ambush. Jack and his macho comrades in the Global Response Staff—each with handles like "Rone" (James Badge Dale), "Bub" (Toby Stephens), "Tanto" (Pablo Schreiber), "Tig" (Dominic Fumusa), and "Oz" (Max Martini)—share their concerns about the vulnerability of both compounds, but they fall on deaf ears. The powder keg is set off when a highly publicized visit from Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) coincides with street protests at U.S. embassies elsewhere in the Middle East over the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" and the anniversary of Sept. 11, leading to an all-night assault on the Benghazi diplomatic mission and a not-so-covert CIA hub.

Over a numbing 144 minutes, Bay toggles between two equally unappealing modes: The high-tech spectacle of heavily armed GRS soldiers re-staging The Alamo, mowing down dozens of Zombieland militants from the roof, and the downtime where the men Skype their families and exchange dopey banalities like, "Payback's a bitch and her stripper name's Karma." The lizard-brain simplicity of both makes it a minor blessing that Bay doesn't venture too far into political commentary, aside from tarring a CIA Chief (David Costabile) as a condescending, Ivy League egghead who's slow to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Diplomacy and restraint, in Bay's eyes, fall under the banner of dangerously naive.

The film's second half gets into a better groove than the first, mainly because the breathless action is confined to a fixed position, rather than the open terrain of the Transformers movies, which all collapse into visual incoherence. Bay settles on the uncomplicated, rah-rah patriotism of Pearl Harbor, all while making obligatory gestures against Islamophobia: a local translator who joins the fight, a shot of mourners rushing to the bodies the morning after, signs and protests condemning the attack and mourning Ambassador Stevens, et al. Those gestures are mere pebbles in the pond, however, when set against a backdrop of mass suspicion and hostility, including a shot of Muslims praying next to their AK-47s and a GRS operative smugly describing the whole affair as "just another Tuesday night in Benghazi."

For Bay, the murky context of history isn't worth thinking about—yesterday's tragedies are today's passable action fodder.