It’s easy to get mad at Michael Bay’s latest slice of processed American cheese, especially as the movie (based on the Benghazi attacks of 2012) lands at a time calculated to do the most damage to Democrats during an election year . Yet it’s harder to overlook Bay’s increasing command of his craft, even as the story and dialogue falter. 

After a lengthy info-dump establishing the political climate of Libya circa 2012 (including the death of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi, the dangerous chaos that arose in that leadership vacuum and the American CIA’s refusal to abandon their operations), 13 Hours spends an inordinate amount of time getting to know its characters. Stocked with a cast of actors most known for TV roles, the flick is led by a beefed up John Krasinski (The Office) as Jack, the newbie; James Badge Dale (Rubicon) as ‘Rone’ the team leader; Pablo Schreiber (Orange is The New Black) as loose cannon ‘Tanto’; and David Costabile (Breaking Bad) as the squirrelly CIA Chief who oppresses them with boring rules and restrictions.

The focus is on the six member private security team (comprised of ex-military men Jack, Rone, Tonto and three other similarly named dudes) who helped protect the secret CIA annex and nearby American diplomatic compound following an unexpected and large-scale attack by local Islamic forces. It’s clear where Bay’s sympathies lie, as an internal class divide becomes apparent between the salt-of-the-earth contractors who simply want to provide for their families back home and the bureaucratic bullshit of the Harvard and Yale educated CIA operators they’re forced to babysit.

Even though these early scenes are overly expository and only hint at some of the ham-fisted dialogue to come, they still ably set up the clashing personalities and more importantly, the geography of the two main compounds. It’s clear that Bay (first and foremost a stylist who came to movies by way of music videos) has taken some criticisms to heart by providing clear and concise action as opposed to some of the shaky-cam antics that have mired his past movies. 13 Hours, his first movie shot on digital as opposed to film, looks fantastic. There’s the usual rundown of Bay trademark shots (impatiently swirling camera, swooping overhead pans, fetishistic closeups of military hardware, slow-mo American flags and endless lens flares; much of it taking place during the magic hours of dusk and dawn) but it still feels visually inventive in ways that move forward the aesthetics of modern war films.

And when the shit hits the fan in the form of endless waves of gun-and-bomb toting militants bearing down first on a hapless U.S. diplomat’s residence and then the CIA base, Bay’s true talents begin to shine. Overhead drones, clear editing, and the prodigious use of maps all help to keep the various parties clear as the action ramps up and the movie becomes a harried tale of survival in a hostile land. 13 Hours‘ closest precedent is 2001’s Black Hawk Down, which in many ways kickstarted the modern era of war movies with its hectic and visceral take on a failed Somalian operation, but it also takes cues from the nerve-shredding intensity of 2013’s Lone Survivor, both of which told true stories about American soldiers fighting for their lives on foreign soil.

And beyond the struggle to survive, 13 Hours is about the brotherhood of these men (who endlessly call each other “brother” as if to hammer the point home) and how war can often simply be about you and the guy beside you going home. It’s a laudable intent that fails in execution. We don’t get to know much about these elite security members other than the usual cliches about having a loving family waiting for them at home and that they’re involved in a conflict they don’t fully understand. We do see that they like working out, beer, and videogames, only to later have them act out a real world version 1st-person shooters with night-vision goggles and advanced automatic weapons. That was a neat visual nod but the idea and any nuance gets lost in the endless explosions that the overlong movie devolves into.

Now those explosions are spectacularly staged (one shot tracks a mortar from start to devastating finish) and the fact that this happened only a few years ago lends a queasy reality to the brutal violence. In fact, the neon palette, digital sheen and tough-guy talk even evoke master filmmaker Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Collateral) at times, though Bay lacks an ounce of Mann’s subtlety and cool. No matter, Bay is on a mission here – regressing from the garish but myriad pleasures of his last passion project (Pain & Gain) to force a one-sided telling of the Benghazi attack upon the American public. If the emotions and sentiments often ring hollow (one asshole character later acknowledges the security contractors with: “I’m proud to have known Americans like you” in one of many cringe-worthy lines), at least the movie is thrilling in its strongest moments amidst the chaos of battle.

13 Hours is too long, has politics that range from muddy to abhorrent, is jacked up on machismo and protein powder, and goes so far as to have the “bad guys” (as they’re often referred to) shooting the American flag itself. In other words, it’s a Michael Bay movie.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Directed by Michael Bay

Runtime: 144 minutes

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