Saturday, January 23, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

3/4

Starring: John Krasinski, James Bage Dale, David Costabile, Pablo Schreiber, Dominic Fumusa, Matt Letscher, Alexa Barlier

Rated R for Strong Combat Violence Throughout, Bloody Images and Language

Michael Bay has become a popular whipping boy these days.  Considering the bloated behemoths ("Transformers" movies) he has directed and the trash he has produced ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Ouija" and the first installment of "The Purge" franchise, although the sequel kicked ass), it's warranted.  But remember that he also directed "The Rock," and for the most part the "Transformers" movies were stupid fun.  But let loose with a teen-unfriendly R-rating and allowed to flex his visual flair, there's no one who can top him.  This isn't a perfect film, but it is very good (at times bordering on excellent), and it should allow him to regain much of the cred that he lost with the "Transformers" franchise.

Benghazi, Libya.  After the ousting of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya has become a war zone.  The city of Benghazi has become the most dangerous city in the world.  The CIA has a secret base there, and Ambassador Chris Stevens (Letscher) is coming on a diplomatic mission.  They receive a report that the building is going to come under attack, but they consider themselves ready.  But when it comes, betrayals, bad luck and bureaucracy turn what should have been at best a minor incident into a bloodbath.

Like last year's (technically, it was release two years ago) "American Sniper" and the searing "United 93," "13 Hours" succeeds because it sidesteps politics entirely.  Neither Hilary Clinton nor Barack Obama are mentioned at all (not even in newsreels).  The aftermath that details the fates of the characters focuses solely on the people involved.  Bay wants this film to unite his audience, not get bogged down into political bickering.  The closest that the film comes to in terms of a villainous character is a bureaucrat named Bob (Costabile), although he's more gutless than anything else.  Bay places the blame for the Benghazi tragedy on red tape, not a single person.

Bay has never given much time and energy to acting ("The Rock" is an exception because it had a first-rate script and a trio of actors who didn't sleepwalk through their roles), and this is no different.  Apart from Jack (Krasinski) and Rone (Dale), who have the most screen time, Bob (ditto), and the lone female Sona (Barlier), everyone is interchangeable.  That and due to the chaotic action and the fact that the majority of the film takes place at night makes it difficult to care about them individually.  That said, the acting is solid.  John Krasinski deserves special mention.  Most famous for playing Jim Halpert in the overrated sitcom "The Office," Krasinski has branched out into dramatic roles of late.  Krasinski has no trouble pulling off an action hero role, due in part because he's impossible not to like.

Sadly, the script is a bit of a mess.  It doesn't do a good job of establishing who is who and how they fit into this mess.  Without a doubt, the incident was chaos, but so was the sinking of the "Titanic."  James Cameron clearly established the characters, and gave us a primer on how the ship sank so we knew what to look for when the carnage began.  Bay doesn't do that.  It's all dialogue, which is a mistake for something as complex as this.  Worse, the dialogue is muddled and difficult to make out.  Confusion is unavoidable.

While the set-up and initial attack are confusing (but still packed with adrenaline), the attack on the secret base is awesome.  It's expertly crafted by a man who knows what he's doing.  This part of the film is the payoff, and it takes up the majority of the final third.  The action is intense, the editing crisp and the choreography clear.  This sequence alone is worth the price of admission and sitting through the confusion.

This is Bay's best film in 20 years, and when I watch it again with subtitles, I'll probably up the rating.

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