Stephen Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

I never thought I’d say this, so I’ll just rip it off quick like a Band-Aid stuck in Jon Krasinski’s beard: Michael Bay made a pretty good movie about Benghazi.

It takes every bit of willpower I possess not to qualify that sentence somehow; maybe throw in an adjective or two to weaken “pretty good” into something more backhanded, like “shockingly serviceable” or “not too terrible.” Something to help me preserve my bleeding-heart liberal cred. I mean, come on. An action movie about a current military event with overt political propaganda value. Set in the Middle (“quick, throw Jafar eye-liner on every vaguely ethnic person we can find at central casting”) East. Released in January. Directed by Michael. Goddamn*. Bay.

And who knows, maybe this is just what January does to me. But I’ll say it again: Michael Bay made a pretty good movie about Benghazi.

The most surprising part is that 13 Hours isn’t really an anomaly. If anything, it sees Bay fully embracing the things he’s frequently ridiculed for: hyperstylized, over-the-top, testosterone-fueled action. Virtually everything else has been stripped away, leaving an odd combination of Lone Survivor and Mad Max. There are only two things in the movie: the calm before the storm, and the storm.

And what better a way to tell the story of Benghazi? Not the politics, not the broader social ramifications, but the story lost in the shuffle: what happened, to whom did it happen, and why might it earn its outrage regardless of politics? To that end, Bay’s total adherence to action feels downright restrained. He isn’t interested in flag-waving martyrdom or sweeping generalizations, he’s interested in a few specific people. Regular, working citizens who have a job to do and do it well, despite their absurd, intractable situation. He hones in on that story — the fear, the insane danger, the overwhelming discomfort of being an unwanted presence in a foreign country — and becomes a pretty perfect voice to it**. Even his typically out-of-place humor is totally at place here; this is exactly how these men would lighten the tension, isn’t it? Bay clearly isn’t interested in solving said intractable problems, nor making gods and demons out of his subjects. The title is the only scope he cares about: 13 long, unnecessarily bloody hours that no human deserved to suffer. And he does that suffering far more justice than most “nuanced” military flicks I’ve seen.

* Actual middle name

** Except for the women. In typical Bay style, there is precisely one female character of note in this movie, and her primary function is to complain, utterly misread situations, and literally fall on her face. Her redemptive arc begins when a burly man tells her “I need your eyes and your ears, not your mouth” and ends when she calls said man is a hero. It makes Emily Blunt’s Sicario character look like Imperator Furiosa.

See my review on Letterboxd