Review by Andrew L. Urban:
“…there is not a thing in this movie that is not verifiable by two or more sources” says producer Erwin Stoff, emphasizing the veracity of the film’s content. And this is crucial, because knowing that gives the film a sensibility, a gravitas, it might not otherwise have. Perhaps the only caveat to that confident assertion is that the film is only two and a half hours long, not thirteen; still it almost feels as if it were shot in real time.
The story of the attack on a US base in Libya has been reported on television around the world, but this is not a news report after the event. This is a reconstruction of those terrible 13 hours, informed by participants (and based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book). It is riveting and harrowing, but it is also more complex than a news report. As Oscar Wilde had Algernon quip in The Importance of Being Earnest, ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple.’
For one thing, the chaos that erupts when the US base is attacked by guerillas is admirably captured, and it gives us a safe, armchair view of how decision making and action are compromised in such a situation. It is a key aspect of the story, because this is when the CIA’s local chief Bob (David Costible) delays the decision to let the half dozen contractors - the ‘secret soldiers’ - specializing in security go to assist. They are at a compound not far from the Embassy. Finally the men go anyway …. But it’s too late to save the life of the Ambassador (Matt Letscher) who dies of smoke inhalation in the fire that engulfs the mission. (If only the talented Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe had resisted the lure of a hand held camera … it would have pleased me more.)
The challenge for Michael Bay was to make a compelling drama from a story whose ending is neither Hollywood-happy nor unknown. It is to his credit that he meets the challenge and 13 Hours is as effective a true war story as were John Stockwell’s Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden (2012) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning Zero Dark Thirty (2012). And as in those films, lots of the dialogue is hard to catch …
The men are heroes but they are individuals with private lives and babies and hopes and fears; they are not square jawed poster boys. And they are capable of deep emotional responses, which we share. These sequences give the film extra visceral value; their danger is palpable to us, even when we are not quite sure who is what, or who are the bad guys … but then sometimes the good guys didn’t know that either.
Other aspects that enrich the film are those unexpected moments that real life provides, such as the local who is watching football on his TV despite the shooting, and the apologies for the attack offered by some of the Libyan population, including the translator Amahl (Peyman Moaadi).
Yes, there is an American flag, but it is not shown in any sort of triumphalist fashion or military context, but as a melancholy residue of a tragic bloodbath.