January 24, 2016

'13 Hours' is Visually Incoherent, but ... America!

13 Hours dramatizes the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012, when Islamic militants ambushed an American diplomatic compound, and six security agents—charged with protecting the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens—tried to hold them off, Alamo-style. As much as director Michael Bay has talked about wanting to honor those six men, his film fails them: it’s visually incoherent and operates on a video game level. At best, 13 Hours is a remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (the one where united L.A. street gangs converge upon a police station and pummel it with bullets), but filtered through the sieve of that laughable cliché “based on a true story.” In fact, 13 Hours goes one better, offering the caption “This is a true story” at the beginning of the film. (The film is based on the book of the same name by Mitchell Zuckoff. As to its accuracy, the reports have been contradictory, so I implore the viewer to do her or his own fact-checking.) 

Michael Bay has made clear his attention: to honor six American heroes whose story got lost amidst the political brouhaha involving Defense Secretary Clinton, who was, as we must surely all be aware by now, criticized for her response, or lack thereof, to Ambassador Stevens’ requests for aid over the weeks leading up to the attacks that left him dead. Bay asserts that 13 Hours is apolitical, that it’s merely a tribute to American heroism. But it’s hard to imagine that viewers will feel the same. Much like American Sniper, 13 Hours bears a sheen of patriotism around it, as though seeing it were one’s civic duty. People flock to movies like this one because they want to know what really happened in the Benghazi situation.  

But politics aside, it’s Bay’s lack of finesse as a maker of movies that derails this film. For well over an hour, Bay tracks the movements of various characters through the crowded, hot, dusty streets of Benghazi, to the compound where the six American security guards are stationed, to the palatial temporary house of the ambassador, and yet we struggle to understand what’s happening on screen most of the time. Bay cannot even master simple movement, relying instead on the shaky camera technique that has been his friend for many a project.

The formula is one of manipulation: Let there be shaky camera, and maybe viewers won’t object to the fact that what’s before them on the screen is visual chaos. Or maybe, they’ll interpret that visual chaos as a deliberate artistic choice, not an artistic failing. But all you have to do is seek out a movie that’s done similar scenes of tension, fighting, chases, quick movements from Point A to Point B, without sacrificing visual clarity. Look at the final half-hour of Zero Dark Thirty, when the Navy SEALS are filtering through Bin Laden’s compound in the dead of night. That’s a tense, incredibly well-made sequence, where we can distinguish what’s going on and, if memory serves, who’s in a given shot.

My objections are not mere cinematic snobbery. I’m not demanding fancy camera-work or stuffy artiness from Michael Bay. I’m demanding visual clarity, and if Bay wants to honor American heroes, he owes it to them to make a movie that makes sense, because only when a movie makes sense can the audience truly engage with it, feel for the characters, connect the dots in their own minds without having to rely on the film to do all the work for them. Bay cheats us with bad filming and hopes that the movie’s intentions will override all its flaws.

What saves this movie is the humanizing performance of John Krasinski, playing Jack Da Silva, one of the six security agents. Krasinski is so familiar from his stint on The Office that it’s a wonder we can accept him as anyone other than Jim, the charming nice-guy. He’s charming in this too, of course, but it’s a testament to his acting skills that we can divorce the actor Krasinski from “Jim” the sitcom character. Or maybe we can’t, and it’s our familiarity and good feelings toward him that ground us emotionally. Without Krasinski—and actually a host of other good performances—13 Hours would be utterly insufferable.

The final hour of the movie, which is the meat of the Benghazi attacks, alternates between this incoherent chaos and moments of clarity, when the fighting has temporarily subsided—a much-needed break for both the characters and the audience—and we can finally distinguish faces, and the actors are given moments to speak to each other without delivering data or shouting orders. In those moments, the movie actually becomes compelling, even if its dramatics are gooey. (The men just talk about wanting to go home to their wives a lot.)

With James Badge Dale, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Matt Letscher (playing Ambassador Chris Stevens), Toby Stephens, Alexia Barlier, and Freddie Stroma.

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