13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi tells the incredible true story of six elite ex-military operators who fought to protect the CIA against overwhelming odds when terrorists attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound on September 11, 2012. The film is based on the nonfiction novel "13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi" by New York Times best-selling author Mitchell Zuckoff with the members of the Annex Security Team.
Michael Bay exploded on the scene in 1995 with 'Bad Boys' and immediately caught the attention of many. The next year, he won even more over with – what I deem – his best movie, 'The Rock.' Since then, he hasn't returned to those heights. The quality has spanned from mindless summer fun ('Armageddon') to the downright unwatchable ('Transformers: Age of Extinction'). With the last four of his movies being on the unwatchable end, I had very little hope for the way he'd tackle the sensitive and controversial subject matter of Benghazi, Libya – but I stand corrected. In the same vein as the great modern warfare movies of the past 15 years, like 'Black Hawk Down,' 'Lone Survivor' and 'American Sniper,' '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi' is a tasteful depiction of the tragic and hero-filled true story that unfolded through the night of September 11, 2012.
Although the attack and death of four Americans in Benghazi is very well known, what's not widely known is the actual story that unfolded there. Not only did the diplomatic outpost – a barely-protected compound that once served as an embassy until the civil unrest turned the country in a region deemed too dangerous for official political activity – come under attack, but a separate dark CIA facility was also attacked. The attacks were coordinated and many American lives were at risk that night. Had it not been for six security agents acting against orders, it's highly likely that many more lives – if not all – would have been lost.
Most people know the events of Benghazi for the controversial political storm that surrounds them, but '13 Hours' doesn't tell that story. Instead, without any bias, it focuses purely on the facts that surround the six contractors who put everything on the line for their jobs, their countrymen, national security and their country. The first twenty minutes of the film builds their characters and conveys the civil unrest in Libya. After that, it dives into the arrival of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the seige on the outpost, the rescue at the outpost, the risky trip back to the dark CIA base and the attack on the CIA base. The violent and nearly non-stop 13-hour attack is condensed into two extremely tense hours that are likely to shed more light into the attack than you knew before.
John Krasinski ('The Office') and James Badge Dale ('Iron Man 3,' 'The Walk') play the two leading central contractors. Krasinski's character is based on a contractor who has decided to not reveal his identity, so it's mostly fictional; while that of Dale, as well as the other four, are based on the real-life contractors. Three of the surviving contractors were interviewed for the book and screenplay, ensuring the story could be as accurate to the true events as possible. They were also on-set for the entire shoot, as were dozens of other Navy SEALs and military advisors.
We've seen James Badge Dale star in many roles varying from wartime soldier to comedic sidekick, but this is the first time that we've seen John Krasinski beef up and star in a dramatic action role. The many lesser-known actors who appear alongside them deliver solid performance as well. Although peppered with mild cliches, the screenplay has a nice fast-paced flow. If there's a weak link in the filmmaking, it comes from Bay's too-styled and too-smooth direction. The visual style is filled with the grit of modern warfare, but the camerawork has much-rehearsed fluid movement and somewhat overly sensationalized action. Many sequences tend to look exactly like every other glossy Michael Bay action movie, although it's at least toned down from the Bay norm.
'13 Hours' isn't without its flaws, but by accurately portraying the untold story of Benghazi from the eyes of the contractors who defended their peers, it supercedes its issues. Excelling beyond the realm of simple entertainment, 'The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi' will give you a great appreciation for those who serve and put their lives on the line for your country.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount has given '13 Hours' a solid home video release. The main feature has been placed on a BD-50 disc and DVD, while all of the special features are found on their own BD-25 disc. Included in the thicker-than-usual three-disc keepcase is a code that redeems both an Ultraviolet and an iTunes digital copy. First releases come with a glossy slipcover of the same patriotic flag-emblazoned cover art. It's worth noting that Best Buy offers an exclusive Steelbook edition with much better cover art. An additional bonus to this release is that nothing but a Paramount HD reel plays before the main menu. There isn't a single trailer to be found.
'13 Hours' features a near-perfect 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. My only beef with the disc comes from some varying black levels. The titular 13 hour timeframe spans from dusk until dawn, so a great portion of the movie is set in the black of night. For the majority of that time, black levels are consistently solid, but it occassionally delves in murkiness and crushing. If not for this flaw, '13 Hours' would have earned a perfect five-star video review.
Sharpness abounds in '13 Hours.' Every single frame – no matter if it's a nighttime or daytime shot – is chock full of glorious textures and details. Featuring six central heavily-bearded characters, their individual face hairs will frequently pull your attention. As they become filthier and more wounded through the movie, the dried blood, granules of dirt/debris, and smudges of charred ashes become more prevalent on their arms and faces. In the low afternoon sun, tons of the tiniest gnats can be seen buzzing around the actors.
Like most movies set in the Middle East or desert locales, the color palette is quite warm – but despite that, colors are still quite bright and vivid. They're not lessened or diminished due to the orange filtering. Blues and greens tend to shine with extreme vibrancy. Denim and lens flares glow blue, while plants and grass are wildly bright green.
Michael Bay's iconic cinematography style is present in '13 Hours,' only with a much needed tamed approach. It's still loaded with quick cuts, but at least the action isn't as close-up as Bay flicks of the recent past. The video is 100 percent free of noise, bands, and artifacts.
While the video quality was nearly perfect, the audio quality is perfect. A Dolby Atmos track takes the lead with a magnificent 7.1 Dolby TrueHD base track. Also included is a 5.1 Discrete Dolby Digital track, a separate 2.0 track, and various foreign language 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks.
With the opening scene taking place in the busy, bustling and dangerous streets of Benghazi, the first aspect of the mix to stand out is effects. Two characters speed their way through the third-world city in a heavy jeep with a roaring and lifelike engine. As they pass other motor vehicles, the sounds of little two-stroke dirtbike engines and bigger vehicles seamlessly image across the room. When they pass a bicycle, there's even the sound of handlebar bell that images. When the contractors visit the lavish outpost for the first time, distant sprinklers can be heard watering the surrounding lawn. The sound was so well balanced that it made me get up and peer out the window because I mistakenly thought my sprinkler system's timer had triggered it to go off much earlier than usual. That's how you know the effects mix rocks.
This level of dynamic effects mixing is applied throughout, which exponentially adds to the shootout sequences. Bullets whiz by. Following the explosive and completely immersive sounds of bombs burting, individual bits of debris can be heard raining down. LFE and other rumbly bassy effects often accompany those instances, making them larger than life.
Even during the wildly loud action-packed moments, the vocal mix is loud and clear. Although not played back at the same levels, low talking is just as audible as room-level talking. The percussion-heavy score pounds all around the space. Typically kicking in just before action sequences begin, the music effectively raises tension as we head into the shootouts.
All special features can be found on the second Blu-ray disc. None are housed on the main feature disc.
Over the years, I've been known to harshly criticize the movies of Michael Bay, but this is one instance where I'm excited to be proven wrong. He managed to take a sensitive and controversial recent event and respectfully tell the humanistic untold story hidden within it. '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi' is still filled with his overly-dramatic camerawork, but it's been toned down for the story at hand. With a runtime north of 140 minutes, it could have been an excessively long and painful moveigoing experience, but he surprisingly rose to the occasion and made a film that smoothly blows right on by. The Blu-ray itself features a wonderful visual and aural presentation and even contains a couple hearty, worthwhile special features. With '13 Hours' being up there with the other great modern warfare films ('Black Hawk Down,' 'Lone Survivor'), I highly recommend checking it out and hope that Bay can keep this upward momentum, ultimately returning to making movies that are worth watching.