Like a sexually confused teenage boy, Michael Bay's fondness for taut, bulging muscles topped by poreless skin is only matched in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi by the uncertainty of whether he's flagrantly lusting for these sinewy lats and triceps or whether the feeling is something more aspirational. Regardless, Bay has created the sexiest Benghazi movie in the history of film.
Cast from the mold of American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, 13 Hours is an interpretation of Mitchell Zuckoff's book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, which tells the story of six strapping security team members. It chronicles their harrowing tale of defending an American diplomatic compound and a clandestine CIA base — both located in Benghazi, Libya — against the 2012 terrorist attack that took the life of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and began a period of political fallout that haunts the American public to this day.
But Bay's 13 hours isn't so much an adaptation as it is a live-action video game that doubles as a blunt reminder to eat your protein and do plenty of pullups. There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't the story Bay says he's telling.
13 Hours is too sexy for this shirt
Michael Bay's Benghazi begins and ends with the chiseled men, members of an organization called the Global Response Staff (GRS). They look like UFC champions or Magic Mike extras. And Bay and his camera love them so.
These strapping gents are stationed in the grueling, steamy pit of hell known as Libya. They face a dilemma: It's hot in Libya, but to keep their physiques taut, they must exercise in an outdoor gym. These are virile American men, and so their shirts come off to reveal patriotic tattoos — stars and stripes and eagles — on tanned, buttery skin. The camera lingers on a pec, then an oblique, as their muscles bulge and contract. When these men fire guns, the movie morphs into grade-A forearm porn.
13 Hours contains moments that suggest the film is trying to out-gay a Bowflex ad. And if it were even the slightest bit aware of its homoeroticism and cutting satire of American masculinity, I'd give it an Oscar.
John Krasinski, looking like he's auditioning for a role in Marvel movie, plays Jack Silva, a guy who's apparently come to Libya to work out and shoot people because he has a family to support. Silva is joined by the fiery Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), dopey Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), and cerebral John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), plus Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini) and Dave "Boon" Benton (David Denman) — two interchangeable bearded fellows. They all call each other "brother," they have wives and kids, and they use words like "cockbag" when they're goofing off.
From their muscular bodies to their masterful gun skills, there's an air of impossibility surrounding these men — a feeling like they are the best America has to offer. The members of the GRS are America's best good guys, and Bay's allegiance to them is guaranteed.
When they're not killing faceless Libyans, the greatest enemy these six men face is CIA Chief "Bob," played by David Costabile (Breaking Bad's Gale Boetticher). Bob is feckless and can't grow respectable facial hair. Bob is also fat, because he doesn't like using the outdoor gym. Bob went to an Ivy League school. Bob is a little bitch baby.
Bob is probably a little spoon. And, well, Bob is a terrible American.
In a movie that's otherwise fast-paced and tumultuous, the conflict between the GRS men and Bob is one of the clearest points. He's the sniveling physical embodiment of government incompetence, always standing in the way of the GRS and using his position in the CIA to declare his superiority.
It's a musing on masculinity intertwined with politics: Americans who can't bring themselves to fight are just as bad as the Libyans.
Or maybe they're worse, because they're dead weight that slows down the real American badasses? Either way, it's clear who the heroes are, because when it comes down to who's got a better BMI, weakling Bob isn't going to save you.
13 Hours is actually a 9/11 superhero movie
The most fascinating thing about 13 Hours is that, like a plethora of recent superhero movies, it feels like a reaction to 9/11. More specifically, it imagines a world where death is preventable and justice is a calculation. The movie asserts that if certain events hadn't unfolded the way they did — the whole thing is all Bob's fault, really — Chris Stevens would have lived.
Bay's chaotic filmmaking style is a good match for the subject matter. Bay is known for his tentpole Transformer flicks, and his trademark move is to jam so much action into every frame that slow motion is required for viewers to figure out who is hurting whom.
Bay has toned things down a bit in 13 Hours; there's only one flaming Mercedes-Benz, which was stolen from Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi. But the director's slapdash, disorderly style works well here. One of the film's major conceits is that our heroes can't tell the difference between insurgents, cops, friendlies, and suicide bombers.
There's also a jarring psychological tension that Bay taps into. Each fight scene is sensory overload — bullets whiz by; night vision is toggled; code words that you don't understand are thrown out. It's a lot of work to keep up. And by the end, you're depleted. It's fitting, because at its heart, 13 Hours is about six men grappling with exhaustion — brought on by both the American government and terrorists — that they can't escape.
The movie's pronounced distrust of the American government is part of its 9/11 resolution. The film lays Stevens's dead body on the collective doorstep of the CIA, the Obama administration, and the Joint Special Operations Command as if it were a certainty that had these organizations acted differently, or acted at all, we wouldn't be talking about what really happened in Benghazi.
This movie takes place in a world where you can eliminate violence with more violence, where justice is achievable and safety can be guaranteed.
But at the same time, Bay constantly reminds us that his film is telling a "true" story. 13 Hours is littered with myriad timestamps, datelines, and title cards intended to ground us in reality. 13 Hours presents itself as the truth.
And that's where it struggles.
The movie deals with true events. But its assured, unquestioned logic of everything in between is difficult to trust. Amid the pronounced chaos of the movie, 13 hours just offers up too clean a premise: Follow these steps, and you're safe. In reality, there are no promises that good people won't get hurt.
13 Hours' tidiness makes it tick. Bay has created a movie that sets emotions on fire, gets adrenaline pumping, and incites the barbaric urge to guzzle a protein shake. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's quite successful at those things. It just isn't the movie he said he was making.