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The most surprising thing about "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is how Michael Bay makes 144 minutes pass so quickly.
His excitable camera is always doing something, whether shaking with hand-held authenticity to capture moments in battle or floating through scenes instead of staying static. It gives the entire experience a waterfall effect. This can be a little dizzying but it certainly keeps the energy up when the rounds aren't firing.
"13 Hours," which Chuck Hogan adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff's book, is about many things, but Bay tries to zero in on that moment when those six contract soldiers tried to do the right thing in a difficult situation.
It is neither as grossly gratuitous as Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" nor as gripping as Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down." Instead "13 Hours" is a bombastic, vulgar and often thrilling exercise in red, white and blue machismo that relies too much on romanticized video game aesthetics and corny sentimentality to be a great film.
Bay's heroes are the brutes — the big, hulking, bearded security guys who know the country and the threats more keenly than anyone. There's Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave "Boon" Benton (David Denman), John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini).
The actors are charismatic, but they all seem more like types than real people. Recent-past tributes have a way of sanitizing to the point of obfuscation.
But they're all basically noble bros. Some read Joseph Campbell, some Facetime with their kids and wives, some quote "Tropic Thunder" and all look out for one another.
They tolerate the sniveling condescension of doughy CIA analysts like the chief (David Costabile) who often reminds them that they are only hired help and that he and his fellow agents are the best and the brightest. He even rattles off the names of their Ivy League credentials as though he's Dowager Countess of Benghazi. It's ridiculous and over the top, but it sets up Bay's point — that the soldiers know best and no one else can see as clearly what's going on in Libya.
They gripe about how things were different in Iraq, where they had a purpose that they understood, they had support in desperate situations, and their compounds were up to standards.
These guys know before anyone that the unofficial consulate housing Ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) just down the road from their base isn't safe, and that the small security unit at the consulate won't be able to defend the grounds under attack.
That proves to be true when the armed militants descend on the consulate (no motive is assigned). The soldiers back at their base in an annex facility are ready to jump, but they're told to stand down until they decide to just go anyway.
Depending on what you're looking for, "13 Hours" can function as a decent actioner, a tribute to those who died, an indictment of the power structure, or all three. It's not a subtle movie, nor is it anywhere close to being as elegant and dread-soaked as something like Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."
Bay reverts to some of his old clichés, too, like cheesy backlit American flags, children frolicking in sun-soaked fields, and slow-motion explosions. And while there are some exciting set pieces, much of the 13 hour showdown is needlessly confusing.
In illustrating extremely chaotic military situations, filmmakers have a choice: They can provide perspective that those on the ground didn't necessarily have, or they can make it as disorienting as they imagine it was for those experiencing it. Bay chose the latter and it's hard not to see that as a mistake.
He films many of the action scenes like a first person shooter game where the vantage changes erratically. Sometimes it even seems deliberately misleading. Other times, it just feels like nonsense.
The parts that are clear also feel like a video game as the guys on the roof pick off approaching threats one by one.
There can be compelling drama in a bureaucratic mess, and it would have been interesting if "13 Hours" engaged more with that, but you can't help feeling that "13 Hours" is going for thrills more than insight.
This movie is a bellowing love letter to the guys on the ground, and it sees them as they probably want to be seen.
"13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language." Running time: 144 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.