At first glance, it would appear that the only thing director Michael Bay and the Libyan city of Benghazi have in common is the initial letter B. Yet here they are joined at the hip in "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi."
Bay, best known for allowing toys to live large in the seemingly endless series of "Transformers" movies, has taken it upon himself to make a film about the tragic 2012 attack on an American compound in Benghazi that has already become a political football in the campaign for the White House.
"13 Hours," however, resolutely steers clear of any of the potentially controversial election-year implications of the incident, in which four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed. The film never so much as mentions the name of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time and has been the focus of waves of hyperventilating Republican attacks concerning it.
Instead, Bay has concentrated on doing what he does best, which is action. Working from a Chuck Hogan script based on a joint memoir written by the participants, he tells the story of half a dozen private security operators who slung lead for those 13 hours and prevented even greater carnage. "When everything went wrong," billboards around town proclaim, "six men had the courage to do what was right."
As noted, Bay and his editors Pietro Scalia and Calvin Wimmer, know what they're about when it comes to putting gun battles on screen, and they're also good at creating the sense of menace and palpable unease that gripped chaotic Benghazi (the film was shot by Dion Beebe in Malta and Morocco) in the time before the attack.
This action facility, however, is not enough to make "13 Hours" more than sporadically successful, in part because, at 2 hours and 24 minutes, the film is too long for its own good and risks feelings of repetition and exhaustion.
Also problematic is the story's sense of character and personality, which doesn't often rise above the level found in the comic book series "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos." And in its determination to steer clear of controversy, "13 Hours" ends up confusing in its lack of specific information.
It all starts with the arrival in Benghazi of bearded and determined Jack Silva (an excellent John Krasinski). He's joining his good pal Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale) as part of a six-man contingent of former military men hired by the government as part of the Global Response Staff organization whose job it is to provide security in ticklish situations. In this case, the GRS team is supposed to be protecting a clandestine CIA station that officially isn't even in the country.
Making matters worse, and one of "13 Hours'" recurrent themes, is the complete and utter contempt the CIA guys have for their protectors. Worst of all is the station chief known only as Bob (David Costabile), who calls them hired help and mocks them every chance he has, which is often.
Things get dicier when Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) makes a flying visit to Benghazi. Housed at a vulnerable "temporary diplomatic outpost," not an embassy, he and his party are soon furiously attacked in the middle of the night by a heavily armed band of evil-doers.
Because the reasons for the assault have become controversial, "13 Hours" never tells us what, aside from pure evil, is motivating the attackers, and that's confusing. And though we see various military and governmental entities outside of Libya monitoring the situation, why they don't act faster to help is also never fully explained.
Though protecting him is not in their job description, the GRS guys are determined to save the man if possible. In the movie version of events, which not everyone supports, it is whiny CIA factotum Bob who stands in their way, telling them to stand down and not attempt any rescue.
Finally fed up, the guys disregard Bob but they are too late. They then head back to the CIA compound, which is soon subject to a ferocious assault of its own, and the GRS team starts to resemble the Texans at the Alamo or even the British at Rorke's Drift in the film "Zulu" as they fight off waves of infidels and their ever-murderous intentions.
Though it's clear that the real GRS team performed exceptional feats, "13 Hours," unlike Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," doesn't end up portraying them with any kind of nuance. The film wants us to feel, as one of the men they protect says, "I'm proud to know Americans like you," but we're never really given the opportunity.
'13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'
MPAA rating: R, for strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language.
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes