Sunday, January 17, 2016

Act of Valor: "13 Hours" lacks complexity but buzzes with tension


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) 
144 min., rated R.

The only politicizing going on in "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is that director Michael Bay (2013’s “Pain & Gain”) deems it "a true story." Apolitical otherwise, the attitude isn't one of jingoistic U-S-A chanting, nor does it play the blame game and drop Hillary Clinton's name. Written by Chuck Hogan, based on the book "13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi" by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex security team, the film is more of an effectively streamlined this-is-what-happened (or close-to-this-is-what-happened) account of the events leading up to the siege on two U.S. compounds on African soil. For all of Michael Bay's overblown tendencies, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" buzzes with sociopolitical tension and pyrotechnics that are actually germane to the story being told. It doesn't conclude anything new or ask anything deeper on the fog of war, but as a tough and harrowing war drama, it knows what it's doing. 

With the threat level deemed "critical" in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, ex-Navy SEAL Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski) takes his twelfth mission as a CIA contractor. No sooner has he landed in Libya and picked up by old pal Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale) than they are caught in an ambush by locals on their way to their outpost. They are denied support by CIA Chief of Base Bob (David Costabile), who insists on keeping a low profile, and his team of Ivy League-educated analysts. Five weeks later on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the temporary diplomatic post protecting U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) becomes anything but a "safe haven" when a mob of heavily armed extremists strikes. It's then and there that Jack, Rone, and their team, consisting of ex-military soldiers Kris 'Tanto' Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave 'Boon' Benton (David Denman), John 'Tig' Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Mark 'Oz' Geist (Max Martini), must step up and do what they were brought to do. Though the team is told to stand down by their chief in case the secrecy of their American base is uncovered, they have to do what's necessary for the next thirteen hours. 

Without an asteroid or Transformer in sight, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is automatically director Michael Bay's most important effort, even if you should probably take the "fact-based" claim with a grain of salt. Based on its own merits, it's unwavering in "you-are-there" urgency and straightforward in terms of who are "the good guys" and who are the "bad guys," who are sometimes hard to tell apart since some of them are "friendlies." At its core, this is somewhat of a real-world horror film, to the point that the characters even call the battlefield "zombieland" (and we can't really disagree as the bad guys covertly shuffle toward the CIA compound and hide behind shredded plastic that eerily moves in the wind). As it should be, the aftermath is inevitably gruesome and devastating, as not everyone will be going back home after their mission. 

Before all of the violent mayhem, character introductions are broad but solidly get the job done. All of the soldiers are buff and bearded, as if they're gearing up for a bear calendar. When they're not working out or sitting around talking bro-speak during their downtime, they're Skyping with their families. Jack is the only one to receive a flashback to his daughters and wife, and it's earnest without being cringe-inducingly sappy. Performances are all on the same skillful level, and each of the core actors have clearly been to the gym, but John Krasinski and John Badge Dale are tasked with the most gravitas and share the most camaraderie as Jack and Rone. 

"13 Hours" isn't above excess, the shooting style for combat sequences attention-getting and spatially chaotic and editing veering on haphazard but hardly ever indecipherable. Bay surely sticks to what he knows and what he can do well, which is choreograph intensely visceral action, but his critics cannot deny his strengths here. Besides, a film can't direct itself. The script does fall the way of clich├ęs, antagonizing Bob and having some of the military contractors tell French female analyst Sona (Alexia Barlier) to use her eyes and ears but keep her mouth shut. It's not nuanced or ever as artfully made as something by Kathryn Bigelow, namely "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," but "13 Hours" doesn't really have any need to deal in subtlety. 

Grade: B - 

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