In a promotional featurette for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi shown before the movie at a preview screening the other night, the real ex-Special Forces security contractors portrayed by Hollywood actors in the film get a chance to talk.
Mark Geist, whose call name is "Oz" and who is played by Max Martini, says Michael Bay's gung-ho reenactment of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya "is not about the politics - it's about what happened on the ground."
That may be how the Marine Corps veteran looks at it, and it may be how Bay - the subtle craftsman behind the Transformers franchise and the testosterone-pumped action sagas Armageddon and The Rock - looks at it. But like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which opened this same weekend two years ago and went on to major blockbusterdom, 13 Hours, by its very subject matter, can't help but tap into the confluent veins of politics and patriotism.
The situation "on the ground" may have been ugly in Benghazi - lax security at the State Department compound; a surprise siege by Libyan insurgents on the anniversary of 9/11; a logy response from U.S. diplomatic and military officials; the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens - but the heroism of these professional soldiers, "shadow warriors" as they call themselves, must be celebrated. And thanks to Bay and Chuck Hogan's screenplay, they are celebrated in raging, blazing style.
John Krasinski is the biggest star here, buff and bearded as ex-Navy SEAL and security contractor Jack Silva, who pops his wedding ring into an Altoids tin before his plane lands at the mortar-pocked Benghazi airport. (In case he's taken hostage, he doesn't want the enemy to know he has family back home.)
Jack joins a team that includes Oz and four other "shadow warrior" confreres: Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave "Boon" Benton (David Denman), and John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa). When not waiting around, weight-lifting, or joshing in manly fashion, the team escorts diplomats to meetings and spars with its by-the-book CIA base commander (David Costabile - poor Gale Boetticher from Breaking Bad).
When the attack on the compound starts in the early hours of Sept. 11, 2012, the six are ordered to stay put at the nearby (and putatively secret) CIA facility. "You are not direct-action elements!" the bureaucratic base boss barks at the team, with the sound of AK-47s and rocket launchers exploding just a mile away.
Meanwhile, back at the diplomatic compound, Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) and his security detail lock themselves in a safe room and wait for help. They wait, and wait, as the building goes up in flames.
With a pulsing, thumping, ever-present score, Bay follows the titular soldiers as they finally jump into their vehicles and make for the compound, taking to the rooftops with their night-vision goggles, training their sights on the swarm of anti-U.S. combatants - "tangos" - closing in.
Way back in 2001, Bay made another movie about a surprise attack that caught the U.S. off guard, Pearl Harbor, honoring the soldiers and sailors for their courage and sacrifice. In 13 Hours, Bay is striving for something more realistic, and less Hollywood, than his World War II extravaganza. To some extent, he pulls it off. But with its prodding musical cues and splashy montages, it still feels like a Michael Bay action pic, just minus the star wattage, and flickering with a somber, sobering, real-life afterglow.
Directed by Michael Bay. With John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge Dale, Max Martini, David Costabile. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.