13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Banghazi (12A.)
Directed by Michael Bay.
Starring John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Toby Stephens, Pablo Schreiber and David Denman. 144 mins.
13 Hours is a mission into hostile territory – a Michael Bay film about actual people in an actual incident. Here the Transformers auteur applies his trademark style to the story of how six American security contractors in a Libyan city which had become a violent free-for-all after the Americans had helped to bring down Gaddafi, fought off an attack on a (not so) covert CIA installation in 2012 after a diplomatic compound was overrun. It's much like all the other Michael Bay films but the transposing of his brand of wish fulfilment fantasy to a reality which is nobody's idea of a wish fulfillment fantasy is oddly insightful and revealing. It's also a gripping war film, and a damn sight more exciting than most of his Transformers movies; his take on Zulu or Assault on Precinct 13.
The opening 45 minutes tries to illustrate the lawless chaotic state of Benghazi in 2012 where various militia and war lords fought for control and the day-to-day existence of the CIA compound there. Then into this comes a US diplomat, keen to do some good who is accompanied by a couple of guards and is staying in badly protected compound, and oh, wouldn't you know it, it's the anniversary of 9/11. After that the rest of the film is non stop action, covering the 13 hours of the title.
Bay is, for better or worse, the preeminent American film artist of this century. You may not like his art (in the paper I have managed to award three one star reviews to his films in the last decade) but if Hollywood is largely the medium by which the States addresses the rest of the world, his films have spoken louder than anybody else's. All the usual Bay touches are present here – primarily the rapid cutting. Few shots last more than 5 seconds and he also gets to indulge his trademark shot, flying across a fast moving convoy of cars as they speed down a road. Everything is frantic present tense in a Bay film and though his style is great for suggesting the excitement of Right Now, it isn't good at providing an overview or context, and I think at times his technique fails him here.
According to Sight and Sound Asleep magazine, The Assassin was last year's best film even though no western critic has claimed to know what was going on in that film. If art is not knowing what's happening there's thirty minutes in the middle of this film that are defiinitely art, because when the attack starts I can't imagine anyone not familiar with the story or the book it was based on will know what is happening. Of course, this chaos is an integral part of the film's story and its message - in Benghazi nobody knows who anybody is, or who they were supporting. As the group of six soldiers finally storm into the diplomatic compound looking to kick ass they encounter masses of the locals just milling around looking innocent and they have no way of knowing who might suddenly start shooting at them. The sight of these heavily armed goons looking around bewildered at all these indistinguishable Arabic faces, shouting at their interpreters “Is he friendly?” desperately trying to assert who they can shoot is a very potent message to the domestic audience. Even so, the film is too chaotic and important plot points get lost. Only in the last third, when it becomes an under siege tale, does the film gain a bit of order and focus. Bay even shoots an establishing shot of the compound that lasts maybe 20 seconds, which does a great job of explaining to the audience what the situation is.
The film's script is by Chuck Hogan, which strikes me as just about the most All American name possible, (thought as patriotic nominative determinism goes it can't beat the football manager called Jocky Scott.) You may expect some kind of rabid jingoistic celebration but it's a little more slippery than that. The stance of praising the warrior but condemning the war and the politicians that fight it, is a well worn one. (In America the film has been seen as detrimental to Hilary Clinton's Presidential campaign because it digs up a controversy about whether she issued a Stand Down order that delayed the mission and cost lives.) 13 Hours is quite subtle, or unwitting, in the way it exposes Ugly Americanism. One American official walks in and complains that he's just been “dealing with some Arabic Keystone Cops. These guys yell …. a lot” and the film just leaves the irony of that statement to hang in the air. I also liked the official who shouts at some excitable local police officers that they “need to dial it the f--- down,” a wonderful example of how America fails to deal with the rest of the world.
The message that the film is loudly hammering home is that it is time for America to go home. More quietly it is suggesting that it should do so with its tail between its legs having made a mess of everything. It's an isolationist theme that suggests that the West can never reach an accommodation with the Arab world. Moslems are just inscrutbale, unknowable, inexplicable cannon fodder. Then right at the end there is a scene where wailing women in hijabs come out to weep over their dead menfolk and it feels sincere, like it hasn't been put there through gritted teeth as an act of balance.
Yes this is a bellicose, gung ho celebration of American heroism, but it is quite clearly sounding the retreat.
Michael Bay reviews:
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Transformers: The Dark of the Moon.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Pain and Gain