Despite admonitions in the press materials and interviews with the principals, Michael Bay’s (maybe appropriately) dreaded Benghazi movie can’t possibly read as completely apolitical. Non-partisan, sure, fine: President Obama’s voice is only heard briefly, Secretary Clinton isn’t even mentioned. But no American film about military power in the last decade-plus has been able to ween itself away from depictions of groups of Arabs as either dangerous mobs or encroaching hordes, and it may indeed be no longer possible to lionize the lethal skill and very particular, ingrained mindset of heavily armed and well-trained men and women who risk their lives to save Americans in harm’s way without revealing a certain insidious strain of jingoism. And while 13 Hours takes obvious — some might say token — pains to avoid criticism, not only does it not resolve these contradictions, it perhaps irresponsibly doesn’t seem interested in doing so.
Love him or hate him, where action is concerned Bay is probably the greatest technical craftsman at the studio level outside of Cameron or Mann.
What it is, with a tantalizing and very uncomfortable relish that shouldn’t come as a surprise from Bay, is a formally stunning portrait of a tactical nightmare and a brutish, bruising display of equally unsurprisingly powerful and immersive action filmmaking. Love him or hate him, where action is concerned Bay is probably the greatest technical craftsman at the studio level outside of Cameron or Mann, and 13 Hours represents the height of his skill. Shot on the Red Epic by Miami Vice cinematographer Dion Beebe, Bay’s covered the action within and around the perfectly delineated space of a besieged American diplomatic compound with aerial masters, long dollies, and slow digital zooms, with cutting kept to a relative minimum (notable coming from the guy we started keeping track of Average Shot Lengths for in the first place). That doesn’t make this film any less #problematic: there’s an undeniable glee for violence here, with Bay even going so far as to remix his notorious bomb POV shot from Pearl Harbor. And the film’s hardware fetish is positively astounding: watch what twin KPV .50-caliber heavy machine guns do to a puny Toyota Camry. Hear the intensely satisfying “plonk!” of an RPG bouncing off a steel pylon (yeah, they bounce, it’s scary as hell). You can practically smell the cordite. 13 Hours is not an ambivalent movie about the use of military power, nor will Bay win any converts to his unapologetic and likely deleterious worldview, but this is a great action director at the apex of his abilities.