Friend? Or foe?
Those are the critical questions bedeviling the six main characters in “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.”
Strangers in a strange land, unable to speak or understand Arabic, assigned to provide security at a secret CIA installation in the restive Libyan city of the title, those questions have life-and-death implications for the six when the nearby ambassadorial compound is overrun by jihadist attackers on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. The assault claims the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In Michael Bay’s gripping dramatization of that controversial event, the men — highly trained American private security operatives — can’t be sure if the figures they see moving toward them in the dark are jihadists or friendly Libyan militia members who are supposed to be the main protectors of the compound. The loyalty of those supposed allies is also questionable. It’s only when the shooting starts that the questions are answered, and then the six are in for the fight of their lives.
The picture is reminiscent of “Black Hawk Down” and “American Sniper” in the way it marries visceral Hollywood-style filmmaking (a Bay trademark) with sober subject matter in a manner that doesn’t trivialize the seriousness of the story it’s telling.
Based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 best-seller “13 Hours,” Bay’s movie is a ground-level depiction of heroism amid the fog of war. Hewing closely to Zuckoff’s true-life account, Bay seems to have no political ax to grind, at least with respect to the role in the fiasco of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose name is never mentioned.
Rather, it’s bureaucracy that is as much of a villain as the anonymous jihadists. It’s symbolized by Bob (David Costabile), the CIA station chief, whose pre-raid scorn of the operatives — “hired help” he calls them — leads him to dither, bluster and refuse to allow them to go to the ambassador’s aid until it’s too late.
The movie’s main drawback is that its main characters are surprisingly ill-defined. Played by John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa and David Denman, they’re all elite ex-military men highly skilled at their deadly profession. But though their acting is uniformly first rate, the characters’ bearded faces and lack of distinctive personality traits make them difficult to tell apart.
It's a frustrating flaw in an otherwise-engrossing movie.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini, John Krasinski, Dominic Fumusa, and David Denman.
Director: Michael Bay.
Running time: 2:24.
Rated: R, for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images and language.